I have always been surrounded by women in my life. For starters, I have three sisters. In college, I was in a sorority and lived in a house with 50 other women. In a sense, throughout my entire life, I have really come to understand what “sisterhood” is all about.
But for me, sisterhood goes beyond my three biological sisters and thousands of sorority sisters. It has become more about the relationships and communities I have formed with others, which have created deeper bonds of sisterhood.
Even growing up here at NSCI, the friendships I formed in the Temple Youth Group created a feeling of community, one that I was, and am still proud to be a part of today. It was no surprise then, that when I graduated from college I wanted to remain part of such a community that provided me with these relationships.
Last July, I began my first year at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. For those of you who might not know, HUC is the seminary where Reform Jews study to become Rabbis, Cantors, Jewish Educators, and other Jewish professionals. All first year students spend the first year of their program at HUC’s Jerusalem campus before dispersing to the three stateside campuses in New York, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles.
When I was accepted to the joint Masters in Jewish Education and Jewish Communal Service program last March, many people asked me why I had to go all the way to Israel for a year to study. After all, couldn’t I just study history, Hebrew, Israel, Jewish texts, and Liturgical prayer stateside? And on a personal level, I had already lived in Jerusalem during my junior year of college when I studied abroad for 5 months.
To my surprise, my HUC Jerusalem experience was different. I went to Israel this time with a deep love for the country. A love that was not always easy to express. In fact, it was not long before I discovered that I never fully understood Israel in it’s fullest.
This time, I had my studies side-by-side my living experience. I was learning Hebrew in the classroom and speaking it (or at least trying to speak it) outside of the classroom. I was studying the history of the Zionist movement while enjoying Shabbat dinner at the home of a most brilliant Reform Zionist, Rabbi David Forman of blessed memory, who spoke at NSCI just a few months ago. I was learning about Israel and the History of Israel while standing at ancient and not-so ancient borders, biblical sites and while lying on the sandy beaches of Tel Aviv.
I was beginning to form a “sisterhood” connection with the State of Israel and in the process I learned that I could not be scared to discover what I might not agree with or like. It was important for me to be honest and sincere, even if it meant being critical.
One of the greatest challenges I faced living in Israel was being a woman. As a Reform Jew and future Jewish leader, my opportunities as a woman in the Reform movement are utterly equal to those of men. However, in the Jewish State of Israel, run by the extremist or ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, the status of women is not equal in every aspect to men. I grew angry every time I looked at the Old City (which was quite often) remembering that the Western Wall was not a place where I could pray wearing a tallit or read Torah. But soon I realized that while confrontation might not be so easy, it had to be done. On Rosh Chodesh Adar, I went to the Western Wall to pray with the group, “Women of the Wall”.
Despite all of the stories I had heard from friends who had been previous times, nothing prepared me for the experience that morning. Almost everyone was wearing a tallit in the group. On the male side, the ultra-orthodox were screaming and yelling at the women calling us offensive names and telling us that we were Christian. Some even went as far as to call us "Nazis". On the female side, the orthodox women said similar things. I knew several of the men defending “women of the wall” on the male side and truly felt their support. As much as I denied it beforehand, I was really bothered and hurt by the name-calling and lack of freedom I felt. To be honest, it was probably the least prayerful t’fillah I have ever been part of. I wasn’t so sure what I felt exactly after this experience, but I knew that I needed to go back. On April 15th I decided to go to “women of the wall” again. It was a much smaller group this time. It was a much different experience as well. I prayed. Nobody really bothered me. There was one man yelling derogatory remarks, but I was able to continue to pray. Even though it took me several months to confront this issue, I’m glad I did.
But I knew that it wasn’t just the dilemmas and curriculum that brought the HUC first year students to Israel for the year. In fact there was an aspect to the year that I truly believe can only happen to its fullest living in Jerusalem.
Unlike here in the US where our work-week begins on Monday, in Israel, the week begins on Yom Rishon, or as we call it Sunday. Sunday is a work and a school day there, and although I may NEVER have gotten used to having class on Sunday, I was nevertheless living the Jewish week. The weekends in Jerusalem are different too. On Friday afternoon, the city is crowded with last minute shopping in preparation for Shabbat. In the late afternoon all of the shops close as the city transitions into Kabbalat Shabbat. The Shabbat atmosphere continues throughout the weekend ending on Saturday evening, or Motzei Shabbat, when the stores reopen and the streets become crowded again. While the honking and traffic in Jerusalem is at times scary and incredibly disturbing, the peace and quiet experienced on Shabbat and being able to walk down the middle of the busiest streets on Yom Kippur is like nothing I’ve experienced in America. Going grocery shopping at Supersol, Israel’s version of Jewel, might not be the most pleasant experience, dealing with the “lines” or “lack there of” and trying to figure out which white looking cheese is the cream cheese you need, might be frustrating, but the Shabbat Shalom said by the cashier on Thursday afternoon definitely makes up for it.
Not only did I form a “sisterly-bond” with the state of Israel, but I also formed a bond with the people of Israel too. I was fortunate enough to be part of a program called “Parallel Lives” where fifteen HUC students met eight times throughout the year with fifteen Israeli Soldiers. We engaged in discussions and debates about their lives and ours. They challenged us as Americans and Reform Jews and we challenged them with questions about serving in the Israeli Defense Force and living in Israel. And at the end of the year, we came out of the program with great friendships and the desire to continue to strengthen the partnership between Jews in Israel and Jews in America.
One of the things that I was looking forward to most during my year in Israel was making “Next Year in Jerusalem”, the phrase we say each year during the Passover Seder, come true. However, this year, I had the opportunity to spend Passover with Jews in the Former Soviet Union in two small Jewish communities in Russia. The most enjoyable aspect of the trip was getting to know the people in those communities. Many of the teens reminded me of me in my days at NSCI in the TYG. They were energetic and dedicated to creating a meaningful Passover experience for others. For some of the adults, this was their very first Passover experience. We shared some of our American Passover traditions and even taught them a few Passover songs. Everyone was so grateful and appreciative that we had come to celebrate together. I was finally beginning to understand what having Jewish brothers and sisters abroad meant. A sense of Jewish peoplehood was truly felt.
And of course, I strengthened my relationships with other American Jews studying at HUC. This unique experience of the Cantorial, Education, and Rabbinical students all studying together was one that we tried not to take for granted. We learned quickly that we were all away from our home “sisterhoods”, so for the year, we were going to need to be each other’s “sisterhoods”. We celebrated birthdays, engagements, and other simchas together. And we comforted and supported each other through the most difficult times too.
Aside from our great friendships, we also began to form relationships as colleagues studying together both in and out of the classroom. We began our semester on Mount Zion, Har Tzion, where we passed around a Torah Scroll and recited the words from Isaiah, “Ki Mitzion tay-tzei torah,” “from out of Zion the Torah will come forth”, reminding ourselves and each other that the Torah serves as the center to our future education, careers and our own Jewish lives.
We took it upon ourselves to learn and explore outside of the classroom too. Every Saturday evening as the sun set and Shabbat was ending, we gathered together in a little park overlooking the Old City to share in Havdallah. We sang songs, shared our Shabbat highlights, and began the new week together.
Over the course of the year I developed new “sisterhood” communities and relationships with State of Israel, the people of Israel, and with my classmates. After forming these new sisterhood communities, transitioning back to the states is difficult. In a sense, it feels as though I have just woken up from a really long dream, but with more knowledge, more experiences, and a greater understanding of Israel, Judaism and the Jewish people.
Tonight on this sisterhood Shabbat, I want to take the opportunity to thank the NSCI sisterhood for their ongoing and generous support of HUC. In just over a week, I will be moving to California to continue my education at HUC’s LA campus. While making this big transition, I look back to my NSCI sisterhood and my Israel sisterhood and look forward to the the new “sisterhoods” I will create.