Posted February 7th, 2013
By Jeremy Fierstien, Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
The Rabbinical School of Hebrew Union College requires a year of study in Israel in order to foster an intimate relationship with the land that bears our peoples’ name.
It is an interesting social experiment, a country run by Jews, built on Jewish values, with a people who are constantly in conflict.
It makes sense then that the name Israel loosely translates to those who wrassle (read: wrestle) with God.
My eight months in the Holy Land bestowed upon me many holy memories and a few unholy that taught me many things about identity, both national and individual, as well as the true meaning of personal connection.
We were based in Jerusalem, specifically Nachlaot, on the corner of Usishkin and Bezalel, across the street from Shalom Falafel, just down the block from the Anatolia shul.
It was prime location midway between Ben Yehuda street and Gan Sacher. We were uber close to the best cut through to Makhane Yehuda, where you passed on the way the Aleppo synagogue, Sulam Yaakov, a shul in a bunker, and the fun little alleyways of Nachlaot.
Most of my studies took place at the Conservative Yeshiva on the corner of Hamelekh King George and Agron streets, kitty corner to the Prima Kings hotel. It was located across the street from Independence Park just up the block from the American Embassy in Jerusalem.
There were all of these behemoth American cars parked outside of the compound that practically engulfed the little European dune buggies maniacally puttering around the city.
The walk from home to the yeshiva was a beautiful fifteen minute affair where we would pass Rav Kook's shul Yeshurun, the Amichai Center, the JNF, the Great Synagogue, a number of delicious cafe's and the expensive makolet no one liked to buy from.
Makane Yehuda, the open air market in Jerusalem is one of my favorite places on earth.
The shuk is an experience in and of itself.
You could visit everyday and find some new favorite delicacy only to be stunned again two booths later with an exotic morsel of goodness.
Only the shuk cats know all of the little nooks, crannies, and secret staircases that exist in the mass of commerce that is called Makane Yehuda.
The hustle and bustle of locals dodging in and out of crowds of tourists trying to grab some last minute dinner additions creates an endearing vibe that draws you in.
Once lost in the alleys you can sample an exotic array of kosher cheeses at Basher, smell spices from around the world, drink olive oil as if it were a glass of wine, taste the worlds greatest rugalach and honey challah, eat the most delicious gummies, wrap tefillan, and catch a minyan for mincha.
Gan Sacher is a magical place.
It is the Central Park of Jerusalem where the Supreme Court resides next to a magnificent rose garden and one of the largest playground slides I have ever seen.
Late at night the inhabitants of the park come out and if you have the right friends you can meet cute little hedgehogs and white quilled, giant porcupines who can outrun a husky! When a Jerusalem porcupine runs at top speed it sounds like one hundred rattle snakes rattling all at once.
Its incredible to think that an animal like that lives in the heart of a metropolis like that of Jerusalem. Israel knows the secret to making the most of very small, seemingly uninhabitable space.
Even though this piece has focused on my Jerusalem experience please understand that in eight months I was able to experience much more of the land than just its spiritual capital. Since we were based there the bulk of my experience was spent exploring Jerusalem and its environs.
My wife and I took full advantage of our time there visiting Tel Aviv and the burbs regularly, Haifa, exploring the different wildernesses, camping in the Golan, and even visiting the West Bank and Hebron. But Jerusalem was home base for us and therefore left an indelible mark on me that will not fade anytime soon.
I very much thank the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College for helping to break the myths about Judaism, Israel, and the world at large that have frustrated me since childhood.
On account of my experience in rabbinical school and abroad I was able to develop a mature relationship with the country that captures much of my imagination and identity.
These experiences helped to shape the person I am today and the type of rabbi I hope to be for the communities I serve.
I have been lucky enough to have forged many personal connections to the land of my ancestors, but quite possibly the most important takeaway I brought home with me was how much of a American Jew, a Diaspora Jew, I really am.