Monday, September 28, 2009

Yom Kippur in Yerushalayim

Officially had my first “Wow” moment spending Yom Kippur in Yerushalayim. I don’t consider myself to be very religious but this was the most spiritual Yom Kippur I’ve experienced and the location had everything to do with it. When the fast started at 4:49pm, a siren wailed throughout the city and everything came to a stop – people finished lighting their candles and walked to shul. There were no cars on the road, no stores, bakeries or offices open, and it was really a meaningful and inspiring holiday.

This year was also the longest fast I’ve ever had, which is strange because the holiday ended earlier than any year in Boston. In Israel, we changed to Standard Time on Saturday night and turned the clocks back and hour to make the fast easier and have it end an hour earlier than it would have. My entire program stayed at the Lev Yerushalayim hotel right near Ben Yehuda Street (a great location and it’s where people who will be in Jerusalem for our third part will be living) and we had both our pre-fast and break-fast meals at the hotel. The catch was that we had to eat our final meal at 3pm because their kitchen closed at 3:30. So we were done eating by 3:30 and the fast didn’t officially start until 4:49, and then today it ended at 6:05pm, so it was close to a 27 hour fast instead of a 25 hour fast.

We got a list of all the shuls in the area and a description of each one so we could decide which one we wanted to go to. For Kol Nidre, I went to the Great Synagogue, a modern-Orthodox congregation, and it definitely lived up to its name. The sanctuary was so beautiful with chandeliers and stained glass all over. At some point I would like to go back there to get a better look at the building and at all the Judaica they have all around. The choir sung beautifully and even though they mainly sung tunes I didn’t know, it was so cool to see such a packed place (my friend Scott and I estimated there were close to a thousand men and 500 women in just this one congregation), and to know that places all over Jerusalem and all over Israel were packed just the same.

For the morning service today, I went with a bunch of people to the Conservative Center, and it was exactly the kind of service I was looking for. It was founded by American olim so the prayer books had English translations (it was actually the same Machzor I use at home) and the rabbi’s sermon was in English. There was plenty of singing, which made me feel very at-home.

We got back to the hotel around 2 and I did get an hour and a half nap in before it was time to leave for Ne’ilah. The great thing about the hotel we stayed at was there were all sorts of different shuls within a 10 or 15 minute walk, and then the Kotel was about half an hour away. I knew that the Kotel was where I wanted to be for the end, so I went with a few friends and we got there around 4:30pm, just before the Ne’ilah service. I spent the first half hour or so just taking in the atmosphere, walking from one corner to the next, listening to everyone singing and praying. There were probably 25 or 30 different services going on at the same time, each one sounding just a bit different than the one next to it. I joined one that was loud enough that I could follow along. I did some praying but I was mesmerized by my surroundings – how we went from light to darkness, how we were standing at a spot where Jews for centuries upon centuries prayed to return to. At the very end of Yom Kippur, the shofar is sounded to conclude the fast, and since each service ends at a different moment, around 6pm, shofarot rang out throughout the Kotel area and people started dancing and singing.

There was one unfortunate incident. As I was turning to leave the Kotel and walk back towards the plaza, this guy stopped me, he couldn’t have been more than 20 or 21, was not wearing a black hat or a beard, just a tallit, and he pointed to my earring and smiled. I thought he liked it. But then he explained to me I needed to do Teshuvah (a prayer for repentance) because of the earring and he opened up his prayer book and pointed to the prayer he wanted me to do. So I told him I wasn’t about to say any prayer because he wanted me to. And he goes, “Only Go’im have earrings, Jews don’t” and I told him it was none of his business and it wasn’t his place on Yom Kippur of all days to tell me what to do and how to pray to God. I have plenty of religious relatives, and even though we don’t observe the same way, none of them would ever tell me how to live my life or how to pray. It definitely left a sour taste in my mouth.

But that taste was quickly changed to a sweet taste, because there were juices and challah and little muffins being handed out at the Kotel plaza to break the fast. It definitely made all the difference in the world, to have a little bit of something before our half hour walk back to the hotel for our big break-fast meal.

So now we have a short week – just 3 days of ulpan before our Sukkot vacation. It’s crazy that we have a full vacation so early into our program. I’ll be going to Tel Aviv, Eilat, Petra and Jerusalem over the break, and I’ll definitely have heaps and heaps of pictures of the adventures to post when I get back.

Pics are up

I posted pictures from our first 3 weeks to my Facebook page (click on the title of this post to go there) There are also plenty of pics from my last time here in Israel with my family back in the winter of 2005-06. I took a lot of good scenery shots that I probably won't duplicate this time around, so feel free to check out those ones on my Shutterfly page (

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Skype Alert

Now that we have our wireless set up, I'll try to be on Skype when I'm in my room. My screenname is mattyc18 - and thanks to my newish computer I have a built-in camera for videochat...holla!

Final Ashkelon 82, Final HaPoal Jerusalem 82

Just got back from the most exciting tie basketball game ever. We all got free tickets to watch an exhibition game between Ashkelon and Jerusalem. Quite an experience. I guess since it was just an exhibition they didn’t bother with overtime, which was kind of strange to see. Ashkelon blew a 3 point lead with 5 seconds to go because they couldn’t figure out that they were supposed to foul Jerusalem immediately after the in-bounds pass. Naturally the Jerusalem player hit a wide open 3 to tie the game. There were probably 200 people in attendance, including 38 from our group and a whole bunch of rowdy 10 year olds, where they’re parents were, we have no idea. There was also a guy who beat a huge drum throughout the game and changed his beat depending on who has the ball.

I spent Rosh Hashana at my cousin Datia Shaked’s house just outside of Jerusalem (we’re still trying to figure out how we’re exactly related but it does go back a couple of generations). I hadn’t seen her or Michal or Guy (her two children who are now 30 and 29) in close to 4 years so it was great to re-connect. I feel very fortunate to have so much family in Israel that is so friendly and welcoming. Some of these cousins I’ve met before and some I’m just now meeting for the first time. But everyone I’ve met has told me the same thing: let me know when you want to come over for Shabbat and you can come and spend the weekend. I’m hoping that after we get back from Sukkot vacation I can get to Jerusalem a couple of weekends a month so I can spend time and get to know all these cousins and visit the ones I know well.

In addition to these other relatives, I have two first cousins who are in Israel. Chaim is studying at a yeshiva and his sister Rivka just made Aliyah. So a fun little aside. I was about to leave Datia’s to head back to Ashkelon, when Chaim called me and told me he was going to be in downtown J’lem watching the Patriots/Jets game if I was around. So I switched up my plans and met up with him for a bit and watched about 3 quarters before I had to get to the bus station to head back (he called me while I was on the bus back to tell me the game had gone final and the Jets had won)

The day before Rosh Hashana I got to do something very special. I was one of 15 people from Otzma to help deliver packages of food to Holocaust survivors living in Ashkelon. We were split into groups of 3, and each group was paired with 3 Israeli soldiers to deliver the food. I went to 5 houses of Holocaust survivors and it was incredible to see how much joy and happiness it brought to them. One woman happened to be celebrating her 90th birthday that day, and another was so overcome with emotions she started to tear up. It’s unbelievable how doing something that seems so small can mean so much to someone.

That's it for now - we finally have internet in our rooms so hopefully I'll post more frequently and I'll get pics up in the next day or two.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ashkelon, Week 2

Hopefully I’ll be able to write shorter posts more often once we get our internet set up, which should be when we get back from Rosh Hashana on Monday. Here’s what I’ve been up to over the past few days. I spent Shabbat in the town of Efrat with my newly-discovered cousins on my dad’s side of the family, Ephraim and his son Eli, and I had such a great time. I had met Eli back in June when he came to Boston and we walked around town and took a mini tour of the Freedom Trail. I hadn’t realized Efrat had such a big population of olim from North America so the only Hebrew I spoke during the weekend was during services at shul.

We started Ulpan, or Hebrew classes, on Sunday, and so far so good for me. Our teacher is really nice and I already have a whole stack of vocab to learn…now I just have to remember what it’s like to study and learn new words! But in addition to learning new words, the whole class is conducted in Hebrew and we’ll be talking about current events all in Hebrew so I would hope that after a few weeks of being fully immersed, my Hebrew will be much better. But as it is, it’s been a huge advantage to have such a great base and hold conversations with people around town. I was surprised at how many people on my program know almost no Hebrew and it’s been hard for them in certain situations to get around because some people in Ashkelon speak English, but not everyone.

Yesterday I got to the shuk, or market, for the first time. For those who have never been to one, it’s the best (and most fun) way to buy food around here. There are open-air tents where dozens of vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables very cheaply, and you’re supposed to bargain with them so they lower the price. I bought 3 peppers, 4 plum tomatoes, 2 nectarines and two apples for 10 shekels, which is about $2.50 in US dollars. In other cities, there are shuks that sell meat, but I got some chicken down the road.

In addition to ulpan classes, we’ll also be doing some volunteer work in Ashkelon. So yesterday while most of the group had a training session for one of their placements, 3 of us went to the other absorption center in the city, called Beit Canada (literally, Canada House – go figure, our one Canadian on the program did not come with us, but he did go there today). Their Mercaz Klita as it’s called in Hebrew is much larger than ours, and in addition to students, there are many families who live in apartments there with their kids. The absorption center has after school classes and activities for the kids, and we’ll be helping out with that. I was caught off-guard actually, because it wasn’t one of the volunteer options I had signed up to do or was even interested in, but as soon as we got there and toured the buildings and saw the kids, I decided I definitely wanted to spend some time there. Almost all of the families are Ethiopian immigrants and I guess a lot of them are undergoing an official conversion to Judaism (I’m so interested in learning more about the Ethiopian Jews so I’m really excited to start working with them). But the kids were so cute and they were so excited to see us come through their classrooms. And it was super easy to get there – there’s a bus that stops right down the street from where we live and takes us within a block of the absorption center. Transportation in this city is so cheap. All bus fares are 3.8 shekels (less than $1), and cabs almost anywhere cost 20 shekels, so if you split a cab ride with 3 other people, it amounts to about $1.25 a person.

I don’t know if I’ll have the chance to write another post before Rosh Hashana, so if I don’t, Shana Tova U’Metukah to everyone!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Boker Tov M'Ashkelon

Greetings from Ashkelon, where I’ll be living for the next 3 months. I can’t believe I landed in Israel just over a week ago – we’ve done so much and spent so much time together as a group that it feels like so much longer. In addition to orientation sessions, we went to the Kotel in the Old City of Jerusalem for Shabbat, hiking in the Negev, swimming (or floating) in the Dead Sea, and we’ve now settling into our new home in an immigrant absorption center. These are places where new Olim can live for free for up to three weeks while they look for an apartment. They can stay longer and their rent is highly subsidized by the Israeli government. I’m living with 2 other guys, Derek from Montreal and Aaron from Chicago. Our apartment is very basic – a bedroom with 2 of the beds, a common area where my bed is, a kitchenette and a bathroom. Besides our program, there are a handful of students attending the university in Ashkelon and there are Ethiopians and South Americans living in our absorption center.

In the little time we’ve had to explore our new home, Ashkelon seems like a great city to start out. It’s right on the Mediterranean, there are about 110,000 people who live here, and there’s also a university, so there are plenty of students in their mid-20s in the area. There’s a marina filled with cool sailboats and surrounded by bars and restaurants with outdoor patio seating. I haven’t yet seen the beach during the day, but friends who have gone say it’s beautiful and the waves are huge. We did go to a bar on the beach the other night that was really chill. The seating was couch-style with big cushions and pillows and there were even seating on the sand and you could walk directly to the shorelines (which we obviously did).

Needless to say, I’ve advertised my love of ice cream from the first time we went around the circle to introduce ourselves. We had a pot-luck dinner last night and I was summoned at the end of the meal to take care of the melting ice cream before it all turned to soup. I also made sure to hit up a good gelato place on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem when we were there last weekend.

As for what we’ll be doing here in Ashkelon – our Hebrew classes start on Monday and then we’ll be volunteering a few hours a week in places around the community (we’re supposed to hear more about that later today). Weekends are Friday/Saturday, and we’re free most weekends to travel or do what we want. So tomorrow I’m heading to visit my newly-discovered cousin Eli and his family in Efrat, and then I’ll be with cousins on the other side of the family the following weekend for Rosh Hashana.

Our internet situation is still being worked out – hopefully we’ll have it set up by Sunday or Monday. For the time being, there is a free kiosk in the lobby of where we’re staying, and we’re poaching wireless access in the front yard from someone named Sergei. We don’t know who he is but we thank him for not password protecting his router. That’s it for now – sorry it took so long to get another update up here. I’ll post some pictures when we have reliable internet because it’s too slow to do it with this connection. Miss you all back home!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Greetings from Yerushalayim

Hello from Jerusalem

We're staying at the Rabin Hostel in Jerusalem for the next several days. So far so good - we have a group of 37 Americans and 1 Canadian and so far everyone seems pretty cool. We've done plenty of ice breakers and get to know you activities and I have almost everyone's name down pat (which is a pretty big feat for me). We have orienation for the next week or so - Shabbat tomorrow night at the Kotel and then a 2 day hike starting on Sunday which should be great before moving into our apartments in Ashkelon. I'll write a bit more when I have time but for now just thought I'd let everyone know that I've arrived safely...more soon!