Transformation through Shabbat

By Brett Burka, Kesher Taglit-Birthright Israel Alum
Excerpt from a sermon at Washington Hebrew Congregation

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One of my fondest Shabbat memories came this past summer in a hotel conference room in Jerusalem. My Kesher Birthright friends and I had met as a group in a terminal at JFK airport just a week before, as complete strangers for the most part, with the exception of a few of us having known each other from school. We had come from different geographical backgrounds from Maryland to California, even Puerto Rico and everywhere in between with a wide variety of Jewish upbringings, hobbies, and interests.

The transformation that we had made as a group over such a short amount of time was incredible. Traveling through our homeland together, taking in the history of our people as well as the breathtaking beauty that Israel has to offer brought us together as both travel companions and truly as friends. We slept as a group in the Bedouin tents under the stars in the desert in Israel, we swam in the natural waterfalls of the Golan, hiked to the top of Masada at sunrise, rafted down the Jordan river, went shopping in Tzfat, floated in the dead sea, went to the beaches in Tel Aviv, walked through the old city in Jerusalem, and prayed at the Western Wall…

…As a group we had the pleasure of meeting 8 of the coolest Israeli soldiers I’m sure the IDF had ever enlisted. They were able to share with us so much insight about the current state of Israel and the ongoing struggles and misrepresentations that we often see in the media today. They could relate to us in ways that only peers our age could. They gave us the perspective of what life was like for a young adult our age in the Israeli Defense Force and how they dedicate 2-3 years of their lives to defend our homeland in the state of Israel.

We were humbled as a group at both Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl where we paid our respects to those who lost their lives so that we can appreciate religious freedom and freely practice Judaism in Israel and across the world.

On this particular Shabbat, Rabbi Hessel handed the rabbinical reigns (so to speak) over to our resident rabbi-in-training, Josh, who was a Judaic studies major and aspiring rabbi from New York. Josh had put together and led the entire service with Michelle, another member of our group, who had written all of the poetry for the service that night. Despite the fact that we were sitting in a conference room, in the basement of the hotel, I realized that night that I had never felt such a strong connection to my religion as I did at that very moment. Looking around the room everyone had smiles from ear to ear, those who were passive and reserved during our first few services were singing louder than anyone in the room. Those of us who had originally stuck close to the friends we knew going into the trip had spread themselves out throughout the circle we sat in so that we were truly a cohesive unit.

Everything about that service was beautiful and looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing about. When we reminisced at the end of the trip about our fondest memories throughout the trip it was amazing to me that despite everything we had seen and experienced, that Shabbat service had stuck out to everyone in our group as one of their fondest memories. It’s hard to put into words the feeling in the room that night but the spirituality and Jewish pride that everyone had developed and strengthened throughout the week seemed to have surfaced during that service and was truly palpable which was a very special experience for all of us to share.

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