I couldn’t stay away for too long! I am so blessed to work somewhere that supports my love for Israel and I could take the time off to staff another Birthright trip with Israel Outdoors. After a long trip from Newark to Tel Aviv, our group enjoyed a nice breakfast at a Kibbutz and went straight to Caesaria for our Shechechiyanu ceremony, where we did a few ice breakers, said the bracha and dipped our feet in the Mediterranean. After that we pit stopped in my old home of Haifa for an introduction to Israel at the Maris lookout, followed by lunch at Allonim and then on to Tiberias to welcome in the Shabbat. So I just woke up on this beautiful Shabbat morning at a small hotel overlooking the Kinneret… can’t complain about that! Today we are going to explore an old synagogue in Tiberias before the trip really gets started tomorrow with a trip to Tzfat! Lhitraot!
Not strictly Israel related but too adorable not to share. My abba at the top of Mt. Glymur in Iceland. Chamud!
It has been said that a Cort sister has to be talking, tweeting or living in Israel at all times… looks like it’s my sister’s turn! Follow her blog!
A much-needed good omen before my trip. While I’m excited, I’m also experiencing my typical pre-travel restlessness and no small sense of sadness that I’ll be missing a good chunk of Chicago summer.
In three short days, I will be boarding the flight back to St. Louis, but before I reflect on my OTZMA experience, there is one more accomplishment I am proud to share with you all: the creation of an English section in Chofit Elementary’s library. This is a project I started when volunteering in Haifa, and after adding some of my FAVORITE children’s books, graciously donated by my parents, I thought it was time to share this project with all of you.
With the addition of these classics, the library now has 202 books.
So how did this come to be? It started back in January, when Violet, the English teacher I work with, would give me a handful of students to work with outside of the classroom each day. I looked at their textbook, and struggled to find fun ways to engage them outside of the normal workbook pages. How frustrating that these kids had nothing to read in English except for their (boring) textbooks? So, with the help of the amazing Boston-Haifa Connection staff in Haifa, I circulated flyers around the area, and ended up with a great collection of books for the children to enjoy. I even got donations from some of you in St. Louis!
After organizing by level, color-coding, and creating an excel document with the titles so the students can check out books, Violet and I welcomed the 5th and 6th graders to enjoy their new books!
I am so proud of this addition to the library, and hope that the children at Chofit can enjoy these books for years to come. So many thank you’s to all who donated, Violet for all of her support, and the Boston-Haifa Connection who took me in as their own!
So much has happened since I last posted around Purim, and many apologies for the lack of updates. This has definitely been the busiest time of the year for me, and when I explain all that I’ve been up to, hopefully you’ll understand why. I am going to try and hit on most of the highlights.
After Purim and the MASA BFL, I spent my last bittersweet week in Haifa. We said our goodbyes to the Boston-Haifa Connection and Young Leadership Division that took such great care of us during our time in Haifa. Here I am with Liel, who spent a couple of years living in St. Louis :)
We also experienced the beautiful Haifa Zoo, where they have a cage for squirrels (a rarity in Israel):
I said my goodbyes at the women’s shelter and at my school, Beit Sefer Chofit:
After packing up and putting half of my belongings into storage, I spent several days with some of my friends from OTZMA in Eilat, the southernmost city and THE Pesach destination spot in Israel:
Then I headed back up North to Kibbutz Hazorea outside of Yokneam, where I enjoyed the Pesach seder with my wonderful host family:
Then, I went back down to the center to Tel Aviv, to see MY PARENTS!!! While my mom was here with the Focus Israel trip last February, this was the first time my dad had been back to Israel in 32 years, since he did his externship at Hadassah. We called Tel Aviv our home base for the week, rented a car and SuCo and DCo did Sarah’s abbreviated Birthright experience! On day 1, we got stuck in 3 hours of Pesach vacation traffic on the way up to Tzfat, drove to Qatsrin to see the Golan Heights winery and Olive Oil Factory, drove around the Kinneret, and enjoyed dinner at Caesaria before heading back to Tel Aviv.
Day 2 was spent in Jerusalem, up and down Ben Yehuda and Yaffo, the shuk, and the Old City. That evening, we enjoyed the Haifa group at the English Speaking Theater Festival, where my aunt Lisa’s cousin Laurie performed.
After an exhausting first two days in the car, we decided to sleep in and Dad and I enjoyed a nice Kosher for Pesach breakfast at Cafe Hillel. I think the highlight for the trip for him was all of the yummy Kosher for Pesach food, with lachmania, a delicious potato bread.
Then we drove back up north and spent the morning in Zichron Yaachov, followed by the biggest and most delicious homemade lunch with my host family at Kibbutz Hazorea. It was so great to see my two families meet, and see how excited my dad was to play with Bar and Segev. After lunch, we toured Haifa as the sun was setting and enjoyed coffee with my aunt Lisa’s cousins Laurie and Miles.
The next day my parents got to experience the beautiful new Yad Vashem. After that, we enjoyed lunch on Emek Rafaim and drove around Bet Shemesh to the JNF American Independence Park where my dad and uncles donated a memorial grove to their parents, so we found the plaque!
After four action packed days of driving, we spent the last two days together out of the car and around the streets of Tel Aviv, enjoying walks up and down the beach and even meeting up with some of my OTZMA friends.
I had the best time with my ema and aba!!
Since their departure, I enjoyed the OTZMA Link to the Future seminar, where we talked about part 3 in Tel Aviv and life after OTZMA. I finally moved into my new Tel Aviv apartment on King George two blocks from Dizengoff (GREAT location!!), and headed up to Kibbutz Shefayim, where I spent a week at the Jewish Agency’s Summer Shlichim Seminar to train Israeli counselors working at Jewish American summer camps. I was there representing Camp Henry Horner as the Israel educator. After Shefayim, I came back to Tel Aviv to observe the sirens for Yom HaZicharon (Memorial Day) and celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day). Today, I am starting my first day of work at my new school in South Tel Aviv! I can’t believe in one short month I will be on my way back to STL…
Here’s the lip dub video that was made one night at the MASA Building Future Leadership Conference I attended last week in Jerusalem! The BFL is “an intensive, 5 day learning and skill-building seminar for exceptional participants of MASA Israel programs from around the world.” (MASA website) It was an action-packed week, and some of the highlights included meeting President Shimon Perez and Chairman and Founder of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky. I was placed in the Midwest group, where I got to spend time getting to know other MASA participants near me, mostly from the Chicago area. I also chose to participate in the Educating for Change track, where we spent a morning at the Har Herzl Education Center learning about zionism and Jewish education. It was a great opportunity to get to meet participants from other MASA programs and hear from a lot of really interesting speakers.
Here’s a worthwhile article about the importance of Jewish summer camps. How does this relate to my Israel experience? I work at JCYS’ Camp Henry Horner in Ingleside, IL and because of that, I have participated in the Avi Chai Foundation’s B’yachad Fellowship here in Israel, training North American Jewish camp staff members who are on MASA programs in Israel for the year. I am not only CHH’s junior village unit head this summer, but also the iCenter Goodman Fellow, a new position of Israel Educator, where I will have two upcoming trainings: one here in Israel in April and one in June in Illinois.
And, if you know anyone interested in sending their child to Jewish camp, check out the CHH website: www.jcys.org/chh and the camp blog (with my staff bio!): camphenryhorner.blogspot.com
Chag Purim Sameach!! (Belatedly)
As Purim approaches, I wanted to share some pictures from my Israeli Purim experience. Even though it’s just one day, Purim turns into a week-long holiday, so I spent the majority of the week in Rehovot with my OTZMA friends, where we:
- had a Hamentaschen-making girls’ night (called Ozne Haman in hebrew for Haman’s ear)
- enjoyed a leisurely day in Rehovot
- celebrated with our Israeli friends from our mifgash at Flora Bar in Rehovot
- wandered the Rehovot street fair, and
- spent a day in Tel Aviv at the MASSIVE block party
All in all, it was a wonderful holiday!
Getting back into the swing of things post-Birthright has been tough as expected, but lucky for me, OTZMA keeps our schedules interesting. The first weekend of March, OTZMA joined the Avi Chai Foundation’s Achva group of Israeli shlichim returning for their second summer at Jewish camps in the states for a mifgash, or meeting. This is a mifgash I would have been at regardless of OTZMA, because this was also a seminar for my B’yachad group. I have to confess I am glad I had the option to join my OTZMA peers instead, after experiencing some serious FOMO (fear of missing out) when they had a Negev Tiyul during my Birthright trip.
The OTZMAnikim were paired with a group of Israelis returning to JCC camps this summer. We were 19 strong on our end, and excited to add 15 new Israeli peers to the mix. The first struggle was learning 15 new names, which we managed surprisingly quickly. The second struggle was overcoming the language barrier, as these Israelis haven’t used this much English consistently since their stints last summer in America. We spent the majority of the first day playing drama games of sorts, to balance the getting to know you comfort of the group along with the extra English practice. We also had a great opportunity to have serious discussions within the groups.
On our first night together, we split up into four smaller groups, where we were asked to discuss the age-old question, “What does being Jewish mean to me?” This is something I have discussed more times than I can count in both formal and informal settings since my arrival to Israel in August. Most recently, this was a discussion I facilitated with my Birthrighters. During their discussion, they, like most diaspora Jews, focused almost solely on the religious aspects of Judaism with very little hesitation. They talked about observing the Sabbath and the holidays, belief in G-d, etc. As a devil’s advocate, I pointed out how different the discussion would be with Israeli peers. Lucky for me, I now had a formal opportunity to have this same discussion with my Israeli peers. Not to my surprise, the majority of the Israelis in my group would describe themselves as “hilonit” or non-religious/secular Jews, and identify with the cultural aspects of Judaism, rather than the religion. This is something that I would have been shocked to hear back in August, but is a viewpoint I have grown accustomed to throughout my year here.
I have gotten to the point where before I can answer the question, “What does being Jewish mean to me?” I first have to ask the question, “What is Judaism?” Is it a religion, a culture, a race…? I have spoken to many Israelis who without second thought would respond: a culture. And the majority of the American Jews I know would respond: a religion. Then, I have to wonder about the bloodline of these people who identify as Jewish, and the many who believe Judaism to be associated with a race. If this is the case, where does that leave me, as the daughter of a convert?
In the informal conversations I have had on this topic with my new Israeli friends, I have found myself a little more passive and hesitant to contribute my feelings as a diaspora Jew, mostly because this is something I am struggling with on a daily basis in my Jewish journey. The highlight of this facilitated conversation in which I found myself a participant was the opportunity to hear the reactions from these Israelis when I tried to explain how I don’t think I really know any secular Jews in America. One of my fellow OTZMAnikim told me he identifies as secular, but I pointed out how he also can lead an entire Kaballat Shabbat service, something I as a conservative Jew do not think I can do. In Israel, it is so easy to be a secular Jew, because in this country, if you are not Arab, you are quick to identify with the Jews. The Bible is taught in public schools here in the way we are taught history in the states. Everyone speaks the language of the Torah. The whole country is on holiday for Pesach and Sukkot and Purim. In a Christian country like America, how can one identify as a non-religious Jew, if they don’t have the cultural surroundings to immerse themselves in the other aspects of Judaism?
Since my arrival in Israel, I have begun to identify more with my cultural Judaism. I have only attended synagogue a handful of times, but have celebrated every holiday and feel more connected with my Judaism than ever. While I don’t enjoy a Shabbat dinner every Friday, it is impossible not to observe the Shabbos in a country where everything shuts down with the sunset this one day a week. I have begun to think about how this addition on my Jewish journey will affect me when I return home. In America, I connect with my religious Judaism by going to shul. How can I connect with my cultural Judaism in America after this year in Israel? It definitely won’t be as easy as it is here, but is something I plan to be more conscious of and want to incorporate into my life.
Overall, the mifgash was a great weekend that I really enjoyed. We got surprisingly close with our new Israeli friends and even spent last week in Rehovot celebrating Purim with many of them! One of my new friends, Shani, is from Yokneam, the sister city of St. Louis, and I am going to meet up with her there tonight :)
The other major highlight of the mifgash: SNOW IN JERUSALEM!! (pictures to follow)