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I came to Israel to connect to Judaism – but my traditions didn’t resonate with Israelis

As I began to lead havdalah, the familiar prayer that I’ve chanted on hundreds of Saturday nights to close Shabbat, 78 pairs of eyes followed me. These eyes belonged to a group of Israelis that I had just met a few days prior, when I began my journey as a gap year participant in south Tel Aviv. I expected an excited chorus to drown out my individual voice, just like at home, camp, synagogue and every other Jewish institution I’d been a part of. Instead, to my dismay, a confused and unsynchronized mumble met my ears. “How is this possible?” I asked myself as I struggled to complete the rest of the blessings.

I chose to explore my Jewish identity in Israel because it is a place where Judaism is ingrained in the culture, where I never need to explain or justify my religion. I wanted to further my connection to Israel by acquainting myself with the people who actually live there, but I never gave much consideration to whether or not my traditions resonated with Israelis themselves. After 13 years of Jewish day school, 10 summers at Jewish camp, and parents who are both Jewish educators, my identity as a Jew has been nurtured, to say the least. By the time I was 8 years old, I could effortlessly read Torah, single-handedly lead services for my whole camp and say the Birkat Hamazon (the grace after meals) in my sleep. I thought I was equipped to succeed in a Hebrew-speaking environment.

In selecting a program for my gap year in Israel, I searched for an authentic experience, something beyond the realms of typical tourist hotspots, where I could immerse myself in Israeli culture and the Hebrew language. I chose BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change, which runs a 10 month program pairing internationals who take a gap year before college with a group of Israelis looking for a meaningful experience before joining the IDF.

While there were a handful of Israelis in my program from religious backgrounds, the majority had little exposure to the Jewish songs and prayers that held so much meaning for me. As time passed, what was at first a shocking concept began to make more and more sense to me as it reappeared in classes and group discussions. Together, we quickly arrived at the conclusion that Jews living in Israel tend to feel Jewish simply by living there, while Jews living in communities outside of Israel rely on tradition to shape their connection to their religion and culture.

I had to pause for a moment to reevaluate how I could explore my connection to Judaism while also relating to the Israelis around me?

The answer was Hebrew. A language I loved for the way it grounded me and reminded me of home. I realized it could also be my ticket to forging connections with the Israelis. Although my basic conversation skills were at first limiting, I knew that Hebrew was as much a part of their identities and homes as it was mine, if differently.

But the language barrier between the Israelis and myself also proved much more challenging than I anticipated. Even the simplest tasks, like reading announcements in the WhatsApp group, navigating the bus schedule and holding basic conversation suddenly required all of my energy.

But I was determined; I wanted desperately for Israeli society, the community that I had learned to love from young age, to embrace me just as I embraced it. The only logical way was to learn as much Hebrew as possible. I began participating in classes alongside the Israelis, initiating Hebrew conversations at every break and furiously jotting down definitions of words as if my life depended on it. I’ve always loved learning Hebrew, but my hunger for it during this time had incentives beyond pure enjoyment.

I always thought that my passion for Hebrew originated from religious experiences throughout my youth. Whether singing a niggun on Friday night at camp, listening to my dad say Kiddush over wine, or helping my sister with her bat mitzvah portion, these words have always reminded me of home and family.

But after discovering how secular the typical Israeli life is, my drive to learn the language was more alive than ever. I started to realize that maybe my dedication had been catalyzed by forces completely unrelated to religion. Regardless, what had taken over was my eagerness to turn Israel into a home, a place where I no longer felt like a tourist but a member of society.

Now that I’ve returned home to the U.S, it’s unbelievable to reflect on how much my Hebrew improved. I was offered the opportunity to conduct a seminar about Jewish peoplehood across the globe. For the opening session, I led a text study and discussion for the Israelis entirely in Hebrew, something which mere months before would have seemed about as possible as sinking in the Dead Sea. I remember feeling for the first time that I could not only accurately express my thoughts, but also truly relate to the Israelis in their own language. We shared our personal experiences as Jews and identified key similarities and differences in concepts like ancestry, incidents of anti-Semitism, and tradition.

Throughout this session, it became clear to me that my relationship with this language and this country is not characterized as simply religious or secular, but as an intricate combination of the two. It is a representation of my cultural, ethnic and social identity. Hebrew, for me, is the way to connect my past roots, my present journey and my future aspirations.

Hannah Merwin was a participant in the 2019-2020 BINA gap year program.

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