It’s Friday evening. The sun has set and the streets are empty. “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” Judah, one of my students, mentions.
As the rabbinic intern at the Hunter College Hillel, I had the opportunity to lead my first Birthright Israel trip over winter break. Together with our Israeli tour guide and my co-staff, I walk with our 40 college-age students through Jerusalem’s neighborhood of Nachlaot.
The energy in the streets is tangible.
“Where are we?” another student wonders, as we wander through alleys passing chasidim.
Most of my students attend CUNY schools while others are from Cornell, Wesleyan, Brandeis, Middlebury, Florida State and Universities of Colorado and Missouri. They come from a variety of backgrounds, religiously and politically. None has been to Israel on an educational program and all identify as Jewish, even as they continue to learn what that means to each of them personally.
Our week has been full. Students felt the waters of the Mediterranean in Caesarea, learned of the Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism in Safed, heard live music overlooking the Galilee at the start of the new month of Shvat. And today marked our entry into the ancient city of Jerusalem, where we visited the Old City, the Kotel and the shuk, the city’s colorful and bustling market place.
Tonight, we’re headed to the Moishe House of Jerusalem, a vibrant center of diverse Jewish life for secular and religious, leftist and rightist young adults, only a few years older than my students.
Moishe House members are recent college graduates and new immigrants to Israel; some of them served as chayalim bod’dim, lone soldiers in the Israeli army, who have no immediate family in the country. Knowing the Moishe House founders from college, I have been invited to lead Shabbat evening services tonight, along with the Birthright group.
As we cross the street, Adam, one of the Moishe House founders and a dear friend, can be seen across the way, waving us in his direction.
Our group is welcomed inside the Moishe House; its painted walls conjure the landscape of Jerusalem, and candles illuminate our pathway. There are about 20 people gathered in the already-crowded living room when our 40 Birthrighters enter.
Someone begins a niggun, a wordless melody. “In the Beit HaMikdash, the walls would expand to make room for all,” someone shares. “That’s up to us tonight.”
Students are invited to “let go” of an intense week as we welcome Shabbat, an oasis of peace. We declare the Psalmist’s words, “Lechu neranneh, come let us sing,” and I’m aware that this is the first time nearly all of my students have ever heard these words or tunes. Adam and others share explanations and anecdotes interspersed with the prayers and melodies of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, which carry through the evening. Before long, nearly all are swept into dancing.
Later that night a student approached me and said, “That was better than being at a bar.” She went on: “My father’s Catholic. My mother’s Jewish. We went to temple occasionally growing up, but I’ve never experienced prayer like that before in my life.”
Others expressed similar sentiments that night and throughout Shabbat, eager to sing more and learn about the ideas expressed in the prayers and words of Torah given that evening. The Moishe House crowd joined us the next night in a park near our hotel, this time with their instruments, and we sang the Havdalah service and re-entered the week. Nearby, chasidim and German tourists took part in the singing and dancing.
Our trip continued. We would visit Yad Vashem and Mt. Herzl. In the Negev, we would see the desert’s sky full of stars and would breathe fresh air. Atop Masada, we would celebrate the bat mitzvah of six of our participants as yeshiva boys from Bnei Brak prayed their morning services nearby. On the bus, we would discuss the country’s foreign worker’s strike, the divisive Chief Rabbinate and the recent peace talks with the Palestinian leadership. In Tel Aviv we would celebrate, seeing the country’s thriving metropolis, and learn at Bina, a secular yeshiva devoted to social justice.
In all of Israel, we would encounter history, politics, passion and innovation. But in Jerusalem on that special Friday night, we rediscovered our souls.
Avram Mlotek is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. He is a rabbinic intern at Hunter College Hillel and at the Carlebach Shul. A version of this article appeared last month in the Jerusalem Post.