It can be difficult to pinpoint a single favorite aspect of one’s job, but I know mine. In my capacity as recruitment and marketing director for URJ Heller High (a semester in Israel program for Jewish high school students), I have had the opportunity to chaperone several student groups on their flight to Israel and spend the first week of the semester with them.
At the end of that first week, the group travels to Jerusalem to welcome Shabbat at the Kotel (Western Wall). I love watching them walk through the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, peering into all the shops and restaurants, and carefully navigating the uneven cobblestone walkways. The best part, though, comes when we round the corner to the stairs that lead down to the Kotel Plaza, and the Wall itself comes into view. For many of our students, this program is their first experience in Israel. Watching their faces as they see a vista they have seen only in photographs for as long as they can remember – that is my favorite part of my job.
I have been immensely privileged to spend a significant amount of time in Israel: I lived there when I was in elementary school, studied abroad in both high school and college, staffed trips, and now travel there regularly for work. As a result, sometimes I need a reminder of how special it is; part of the reason I love watching these students so much. For a few minutes I can experience, vicariously through the teens’ eyes, the magic and awe of being in Israel.
It has become familiar and comfortable: the landmarks, the bus routes, my favorite hummus place. But as with any place we visit again and again, the sparkle dulls over time. Accompanying our student groups for that “big reveal” reminds me that Israel is a place like none other. On this most recent trip, I got another reminder of that fact.
On the third night of Hanukkah, I went to meet a dear friend in Tel Aviv. We first met almost nine years ago when he was a shaliach (emissary) at URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute, which has been my summer home since 2002. Any time he’s in New York City or I’m in Israel, we meet up and find some good food. This trip was no exception; Ori brought me to a hip spot called Tipaleh, which featured a typical Tel Aviv crowd – trendy young people out for a quick meal or casual drink with friends. If not for the rapid-fire Hebrew echoing from every corner, it could have been a scene from a café in any city in the world.
That all changed about an hour after we arrived when the lights suddenly dimmed and one of the bartenders called out to the whole place: “Everyone is invited to light Hanukkah candles! Come on!” I watched as everyone turned toward the large hanukkiyah being placed on the bar top and joined in singing the Hanukkah blessings together. The waitresses then broke out in a spirited rendition of “Maoz Tzur” as they passed around fresh sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) to everyone. The whole scene was so perfect I was worried no one would believe it actually happened – so I recorded the whole thing on my phone.
The entire event transpired in just a few short minutes, but I couldn’t stop talking about it for days. Yes, I was in Israel, but we were in downtown Tel Aviv, arguably one of the most secular areas in Israel. What was supposed to be a routine evening – catching up with an old friend over some great food and a walk around familiar streets – turned into a delightfully unexpected reminder that this place is anything but ordinary. Here, Judaism is the default and everyone knows the words to “Maoz Tzur.”