May 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

And I thought Bergen County felt as Jewish as you can get…

But nothing can compare to Eretz Yisrael during the chagim season.

It was my first time in Israel for any of the chagim. I had always heard about the “feeling in the air” during the month of Tishrei in Israel, but never understood what everyone meant. The way I imagined it—the Five Towns or Teaneck about tripled in size, with shofarot and esrogim being sold in every corner and music for the chag blasting in public—was not quite the reality, but it was incredible just the same.

The month of the chagim was the time when the fact that we live in a country run by and for the Jewish people hit me the most. Businesses close early and buses stop running hours before—not only for a usual Shabbat, but for the Yamim Noraim as well, because every cab and bus driver in the entire country is observing Yom Kippur! The public buses flash blinking Shana Tova, Gmar Chatima Tova and Chag Sameach signs, men offer random people on the street to shake lulav outside the central bus station, and every shop in the market sells the special kosher food for the chagim. On the yishuv where I was for Yom Kippur, there was not a single car in sight the entire day, because the entire community was religious. The atmosphere and environment in Israel is so much more conducive for finding meaning and having constant awareness during the chagim season, in addition to the fact that our tefilot are stronger in the Holy Land!

Every year on the first day of the “Americans’” Chol Hamoed, there is a big Birkat Kohanim at the Kotel, the area filled to the max with men and women for the minyan beforehand as well. What was unique about this year, though, was the “zecher l’Hakel” that took place later that day, the commemoration of the Hakel reading and celebration in previous times, only once every seven years (the year after shemittah). The actual davening and readings were of course meaningful—a public reading from the siddur and Torah certainly cannot be found in America!—but what I found the most beautiful were the amount of Jews that came together, all unified and in one place, and the diversity of all of the rabbanim on the panel of various presentations done at the Hakel ceremony.

Surprisingly, the shuls that I went to over the many days of chagim were not drastically different from what I was used to, as I had expected (even the Israeli ones!). I noticed that though some tunes were similar and many were different (including various unexpected “peppy” tunes for an otherwise solemn Yamim Noraim paragraph!), all the words were said with the “correct” emphasis and pronunciation for the Hebrew language, as is often a noted difference between here and in America.

By far one of the strangest experiences I have ever had was keeping a second day of Yom Tov in a house where everyone else was happily doing melachah. The rabbi sent “his condolences” to my friends and I for keeping two days, and another family took pictures and videos of us making Kiddush and HaMotzei for ourselves, all in good fun. We from America all agreed, however, that the chag would not be the same enjoyable experience for us if it was just one day long, like Shabbat. On the first days of Sukkot, we made the second day feel like chag by making it meaningful for ourselves, and on the last days we had two days of Simchat Torah—four sets of hakafot!—which was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As the entire country is now transitioning together from the Tishrei season of fun and inspiration to the Cheshvan of routine and application, seminaries and yeshivot are doing the same. The core of the “real” year experience is about to begin!

Rachel Goldberg is a local resident and New Jersey yeshiva day school graduate who is studying in Israel for her gap year.

By Rachel Goldberg

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