by Naomi Lieberman
Growing up attending pluralistic Jewish day schools, I was always well aware of the multitude of ways to practice Judaism.
But, as a young child, it is difficult to understand why different Jews were allowed, even encouraged, to follow different sets of rules. Why did I have to observe the Sabbath (Shabbat) and laws of Kashrut (keeping kosher) while my friends did not?
Over the years, I came to accept and appreciate the different strands of Judaism and what they all add to the conversation. Going to college at the University of Maryland, was the first time I had attended a secular school. But, I embraced the large Jewish community at Maryland with the kind of understanding and appreciation I had learned from pluralistic day school.
In some ways, I believed that coming to Israel this year would be taking another step in the same direction. I am already quite familiar with Israel and figured that it would provide me with a community I have already come to immensely value. With the diverse Israeli landscape, I had no doubt I would be able to interact with Jews from all backgrounds and nourish my need for a pluralistic surrounding.
Rehovot turned out to be just as diverse as I anticipated. It serves as a home for Modern Orthodox, Haredi, Conservative, Reform, and Secular Jews. And these Jews come from everywhere – Ethiopia, Yemen, Russia, US, and Europe. As a teacher at Hadarim, a school with students whose families are predominantly immigrants, I am exposed to an even greater level of diversity – by having the opportunity to work with groups of students from all over.
But, as much as the city lived up to my expectations. I had a difficult time finding my footing at the beginning. And that was due to the fact that I am the only Ma’ase Olam participant this year who is Shomer Shabbat and Shomer Kashrut. This is not the first time, I have had to adjust to being with a large peer group that does not share in many of my cherished practices, but this is the first time that I have lived in an apartment that is not kosher, that I have had to worry about how I would be able to celebrate Shabbat in Rehovot if everyone else in the apartment is headed to a beach day in Tel Aviv, or how I would find my community without knowing anything about the religious community in Rehovot.
A huge concern of mine was that my suite mates would not accept my decision to keep kosher in the apartment. I was provided with a set of new dishes – for both meat and milk. And after a month of eating on paper, I was recently taken to the dish mikveh to tovel the dishes so that I could begin using them. I am so grateful to Naama, one of our Israeli peer fellows, who went out of her way to bring me there and help me out. Kashrut is definitely a huge concern of mine, but my apartment mates have all been so respectful and understanding, that my concerns have almost evaporated. They even want me to teach them how it all works.
Our first Shabbat on the program was during orientation, and we all spent it together on Kibbutz Givat Haviva. The various Shabbat programming we had made me feel right at home. But, as soon as we were given a five minute break, the phones came out and I realized again the vast differences in my Shabbat experience from those of my new friends. Shabbat has always been a time for me to disconnect and focus on myself for a day. When I think of Shabbat, I think of relaxation, family, friends, community, synagogue, and good food. But, I soon learned that for others, it can just be another day of the weekend – a day to explore Israel when we don’t have to worry about making it to school on time. While I have spent most shabbatot away from Rehovot, I have been shocked and delighted by how welcoming the religious community in Rehovot is. Shabbat meal invitations keep coming and everyone is so happy to host me and hear about my experiences here. There is a large Modern Orthodox Anglo synagogue next to our apartment where I have already run into many friends and acquaintances I didn’t even know lived in the area.
All the MITF Rehovot participants have been so understanding and accepting of my practices - even offering to go with me to Shabbat meals, or play cards with me until sundown. Everyone wants to try going away with me to spend Shabbat with my various friends. It is refreshing to feel accepted and understood by my apartment mates. While I learned at a young age that there is no one way to be a Jew, I am reminded of it every day.
Naomi is a Fellow of Ma'ase Olam's Masa Israel Teaching Fellow program. For more information about her experience and the program email firstname.lastname@example.org.