By Ariella Kristal, Nativ
I always found it quite convenient that the academic year and the Jewish year started at the same time. My family would gather together to celebrate the High Holidays, discuss plans for the upcoming year over festive meals, and then disperse back to our respective towns and states as soon as the last shofar blowing was over. This past year I took a gap year and went on the Masa Israel-sponsored Nativ College Leadership Program in Israel. I left for Israel in September and I was a bit anxious; not only was I about to create a life for myself in a foreign country, but I was also embarking on this journey on my own during a time when I usually found myself surrounded by my family and closest friends.
About two weeks after my arrival in Israel, I felt the holiday season permeate the air in a way that is only possible in Israel. At home, I felt Rosh Hashana’s impending arrival by the preparations my family would make; here, the whole country prepared for the New Year together. Local buses in Jerusalem displayed holiday greetings, signs indicatedmachzor sales, and round challot were readily available at every bakery in town. Furthermore while individuals conducted cheshbon nefesh, self-reflection, in order to prepare themselves to be judged before God, the entire country engaged in a national cheshbon nefesh, reviewing state-wide actions and seeing how they can be improved in the upcoming year. I was captivated by the holiness that was infused in the air. I missed my family and my traditions, but I felt part of something much greater than my family or myself. The Jewish Homeland felt like just that as people of nearly a whole population busied themselves with religious preparations.
And then it was time. Shofars sounded throughout the country as Elul came to an end and Tishrei and the new year began. On Yom Kippur everything stopped. Cities shut down while their inhabitants congregated in synagogues, atoning for their sins. And when the fast broke and people began working again, sukkahs began popping up in backyards, on rooftops and street corners, outside restaurants, and in public squares. Market places dedicated solely to the sale of etrogs and lulavs were ubiquitous. And the solemn atmosphere from the Days of Awe turned into a festive celebration of Sukkot. During Chol HaMoed I went with Nativ on a “Desert Survival” trip to the Negev and each morning we began our day with shacharit, hallel, and hakafot witharba’at haminim (the four species). I felt truly connected to the holiday in which I was to remember the forty years of wandering in the desert after God took B’nai Yisrael out of Egypt, by wandering through the desert of the Promised Land. The spiritual energy that had been building all month culminated in singing and dancing in synagogues and in the streets with Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah as we finished another cycle of reading the Torah and began again.
Transitions can be difficult and I didn’t know what to expect when I left home at eighteen and went to Israel for the year. I arrived in a country that greeted me with arms wide open, beckoning me to welcome the New Year with her. Celebrating the chagim in Israel made my transition a lot smoother and also enabled me to experience the culture and become a part of Israeli society from the very start.