By Efrat David
Jewish Agency Cross-Campus Israel Fellow the Hillels of Illinois
In Israel, the holidays are a special time of the year. You don't need a calendar to know it's the High Holiday season, you feel it and sense it in the air. It's a time of renewal and a fresh start. Everyone greets you with a Shana Tova blessing-- strangers and family alike, even the bus signs will switch from time to time to a Rosh Hashanah blessing.
Everyone is in shopping mode, buying gifts for family and friends and almost every conversation will start with, "so what are your plans for the holiday?" People exchange food recipes and fresh pomegranate juice is sold on every corner.
Then everything slows down again for Yom Kippur, it's a unique time to reflect on the past year and ask forgiveness from God, from the people we hurt and ourselves. The intensity starts again right after Yom Kippur with the building of the Sukkah. Overnight you'll see thousands of sukkot, like flowers blossoming after the rain.
Two weeks before the eve of Rosh Hashanah I had a conversation with a colleague about how to translate the unique feeling in Israel during the holidays to Chicago. We were left with no answers. A few days before Rosh Hashanah, it occurred to me that I didn't have a Rosh Hashanah dinner to go to. After talking with other Israelis and American friends in the city, I realized that I wasn't the only one. So I decided--if we don't have a dinner let's create one and bring Israel to Chicago! I started inviting others to dinner and soon a dinner of four became a dinner of 13 people.
Thirteen strangers came together for this Rosh Hashanah dinner. Sounds like the beginning of a Jewish joke, but in our case this is how our night started. Soon enough, this dinner transformed and for one night we weren't strangers to each other--we were family.
Our dinner could easily have ended after an hour, but everyone stayed till midnight to talk about (and argue like any other typical Israeli family) various topics from politics to water around the table. For me, this was the first time I really felt the holiday spirit during my time here in the states away from home. I realized I succeeded in creating this special holiday spirit even if it was for one night and I didn't do it alone- I had 12 other partners.
In Israel the concept of hospitality (הכנסת אורחים), is an important part of the culture during the holidays and year round. Families host and welcome lone soldiers, Holocaust survivors and international students to their homes. This Rosh Hashanah we implemented the hospitality concept right here in Chicago. We welcomed one another by opening up our hearts and lives to each other as guests and family, while shaping our own experience together.
There is a saying in Hebrew אם יש מקום בלב יש מקום " if there is a place in your heart you will find space". I believe that if there is room in your heart, you will ignore limitations and find a space to welcome others. When I think about this concept of hospitality and my own personal experience as an Israeli, my hope is to translate this into my work on campus as an Israel Fellow as we begin the new year. I want to inspire our students to connect with and create meaningful Jewish and Israel experiences and to own them. And through these experiences, to reach out to others, especially those they don't know. In making this effort they will always find partners and see they are not alone. My hope for the new year is that each student I reach will learn to implement the concept of hospitality wherever they go--not only on campus but also in other opportunities throughout their lives.