By Darya Watnick, Yahel Social Change
At this point in my life, my commitment to Judaism is mostly expressed through social justice and volunteering. When deciding what to do after graduating from college, I realized that I wanted to spend some time in Israel doing something that would enable me to connect to my Jewish heritage.
As a product of the Reform movement, the majority of my connection to the Jewish religion is through mitzvot and tikkun olam. Judaism is more than just observance of holidays and traditions. It is about being a good person and taking care of other people and the world around me.
Yahel is one of the ways I express my commitment to Judaism and social justice. To me, my work with Ethiopian Israelis is more than just coming into the community and helping out. It is about learning about this community and the people in it on a more individual level. We build relationships. In this way, we as the volunteers get just as much out of our time in Gedera as the people we are working with.
The Ethiopian Israeli community has become very special to me now. I have made valuable connections and discoveries by participating in this program. Discovering that this community has such an unwavering faith in their religion and relationship to Israel has helped me to feel more connected to Judaism and Israel. Living and working with the Ethiopian Israelis in Gedera is one way I have shown my commitment to my faith by coming to understand and appreciate how they express their Jewish identity.
In participating in the Homework at Home program I work with a high school student, Sara. She was recently selected by Friends by Nature to be one of four high school students to spend three weeks at Camp Tawonga in California. I’m so happy her for but it also means that we need to work really hard for the next two months to get her comfortable and confident in speaking English. Yesterday, we had a conversation about what she would like to learn to talk about before she leaves for the US. One interesting topic she brought up was about how the other kids at the camp observe Shabbat. In Sara’s home they typically observe although she doesn’t personally. For example, she will use her phone but for her it is weird that someone would use a microphone to lead prayers. At Tawonga, they typically use microphones on the Sabbath. This is just one example of the differences in observance that I have come across.
I realized that I needed to develop my own connection to Judaism as well. Now I have become more interested in participating in religious aspects of Judaism. I try to do something to observe and recognize Shabbat every week, whether it’s spending the weekend in Jerusalem to go to shul, having a meal with my host family or lighting the candles on my own. I like to mark the beauty and separateness of Shabbat in a way that aligns with my level of comfort with Judaism at this point in time.
My past seven months in Israel have been utterly life changing. I have had experiences and encounters that I never would have expected. But on a personal level, living in Israel has made me realize that I want to explore my spirituality further. I feel ignorant about the Jewish religion and that feeling unsettles me. So I have made the decision to live in Israel for another year, spending the year studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Pardes will provide me with the knowledge I need to expand and discover my connection to Judaism. After a year at Pardes, I will be able to make decisions about how observant I want to be and I will have the tools to be the type of Jew I want to be.
Yahel has helped me to develop the social justice side of my Jewish identity. Community service has become a much more integral part of who I am as a Jew. Yahel has increased my passion and skills for community service work. But I feel that the religious portion is lacking and so in the next year I aim to build up that part of me. I feel lucky that I have had the opportunity to do Yahel and spend time working and learning in this community. I am equally blessed that I get to continue my journey in Jerusalem next year. I am moving on from Yahel, but I won’t be leaving it behind.