A Birthright Shabbat in Jerusalem

 In Israel and Overseas

Max Coleman was a participant on the East Bay Community’s Birthright Israel trip this summer. He is sharing reflections, stories, and photos of what he experienced on Birthright in Israel for ten days with us.

While all of the participants in Birthright have Jewish ancestry, many have little religious background and have never participated in Jewish holidays like Shabbat. For those of us who have had such experiences, there is a special honor and obligation in sharing a piece of Jewish culture with others. As someone who was raised in the reform Jewish tradition—having attended Hebrew school and had a B’nai Mitzvah with my twin brother—I felt excited and a little trepidatious to share the Shabbat tradition with the rest of the group. A small handful of us (four students and our incredible guide, Chen) helped plan Shabbat while the remainder of the group went to their hotel rooms to rest and prepare for the evening, or to swim and play cards if they had a bit more energy.

A tour of the Old City of Jerusalem on Friday afternoon, just hours before Shabbat.

The essence of Shabbat, we agreed, is the permission to take a radical break from the busyness of everyday life—a kind of chaos whose escape has become all the more necessary in our modern age. So most of the Shabbat activities we planned were centered on the idea of relaxation and present-mindedness. Gathered in a circle in the beautiful Grand Hotel Jerusalem, we were led in a standing meditation by AJ, one of our American staffers. AJ instructed us to raise our hands above our heads and keep them there as he described, in slow and intentionally painstaking detail, everything that we had experienced that week. “And remember when we went to Tzfat and visited that Kabbalah artist and had Yemenite food, and some of us went down to the Ari Mikvah?” he would ask. Eventually our arms began to hurt and some of us lowered them slightly, but AJ would say, “Keep your hands up!” Eventually, after what was designed to seem like hours, AJ told us all to put our hands down. “And that,” he proclaimed as we all sighed with relief, “is the feeling of Shabbat.”

A Yemenite woman cooks lunch for us in Tzfat. This is one of many memories AJ asks us to recall from the week.

Other events throughout the evening included a sitting meditation, a song session—in which we sang Lecha Dodi in several different tunes, along with Adamah Veshamayim, Adon Olam, and a few others—and perhaps best of all, an opportunity for each of us to go around the room and describe how we had practiced Shabbat in our own lives or, if we hadn’t, how we were experiencing this particular Shabbat so far. It was very moving to hear from people who had never had a Shabbat in their lives, but felt so emotionally connected to this moment and to the group as a whole. Many of us expressed our desire to continue Shabbat ceremonies together once we returned home—a promise that we have already acted upon, living so close together in the East Bay. Before moving to the dining room to complete the blessings over the candles, challah, and wine, we each wrote on a small piece of paper something that we had learned or recognized during the past week in Israel (really, only five days). At dinner, we would distribute one of these anonymously to another member of the group, so we could each catch a glimpse of how someone else was experiencing the Birthright trip thus far.

The dining room of the Grand Hotel Jerusalem, where we celebrated Shabbat.

The next day was spent in relative quiet, as we all woke up late on Saturday morning and came down to Shabbat breakfast in the opulent Grand Hotel dining room. We chatted about how Jews of all stripes experience Shabbat—some treat it like any weekend respite, while others ride the Shabbat elevator and pre-rip their toilet paper. After a day filled with few obligations—we swam at the hotel pool and played games in a nearby park—we ended Shabbat with Havdalah, my favorite Jewish service. Though it was difficult to hear each other in the wind and the evening commotion, we stood in the outdoor courtyard of the hotel and sang a few of the traditional songs before watching the braided Havdalah candle fizzle out to signal the end of the week. It was a beautiful 25 hours of Shabbat, and I was so honored that I could spend it with so many who were experiencing such magic for the first time.

Relaxing at the park on Shabbat morning.

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