“Veer away from wearing red, tie your hair back in a bun, and cover your legs in stockings or tights,” were a few pointers our teacher told us to remember while walking through his community to join his family of 10 for a Shabbat meal. I, along with three girls from my school, nervously and excitedly anticipated this Shabbat meal for the entire week approaching it. The list of “pointers” sent the message that we would have to walk the streets quietly and discreetly to avoid sticking out in a community where women walk on one side of the street and men on the opposite.
One of the most amazing opportunities to take advantage of during my year in Israel has been to learn about the different customs and backgrounds of the diverse staff at my school. I have teachers in the Beis Yaakov world, many affiliated with the dati leumi (Israeli modern orthodox) community, and some coming from different sects of chareidi and chasidic backgrounds. With that, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing Shabbats and holidays in many different colorful communities and in ways that I’ve never been exposed to before.
This past Shabbat was definitely a story for the books, as it was my first time experiencing an authentic, Bellz Chassidic Shabbat in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, one of the most ultra-orthodox populated neighborhoods of Israel.
The experience was eye opening and brought to life the stories I hear and pictures I see of this specific community of Jews. Approaching my teacher’s apartment, scores of children freshly showered and nicely dressed for Shabbat filled the entry way and streets. The feel of Shabbat filled the air of the entire city as the weekly preparations and rush suddenly subsided, and a calmness was ever present. Men were walking to Shul in their shtreimels and golden and black bekishes, and women dressed in Shabbos robes were lighting candles in the windows. I swear I could smell freshly baked challah and potato kugel seeping through the walls of every apartment.
Upon our arrival at 6:00 PM we were introduced to my teacher’s eight children and wife, and we schmoozed and celebrated Shabbat until we left at 1:30 AM. Yes, the dinner was 7.5 hours. The way in which the night was conducted was completely conducive to relaxation in every sense of the word. After six days of creating the world, God rested. And after six days of work, we were to rest too. We indulged in conversation with his wife and got to know his kids while he was away at shul. When he came home we relaxed for another few hours before dinner, a reminder that Shabbat’s true purpose, if done correctly, should include no semblance of rush or stress. Dinner was finally served around 10:00 PM. Course after course of soup, fish, chollant, kugels, and salads piled up on the long table until the main dish was served.
Our teacher sat on one end of the table with his son while his wife sat on the opposite end with us, and their seven little girls sat between the two ends to separate. Conversation, song, and the occasional dance filled the night, and before we knew it his sleeping children laid across each couch, chair, and lap of their parents and willing guests.
We took the long walk home in the pitch black of night, but the energy on the streets emulated that of mid-day. We were accompanied by many other people excitedly returning from their meals and various onegs and tischs in honor of Shabbat. Their laughter and song filled the silence of the night. The entire walk back I tried to absorb what I had just experienced. It was so different from anything I had ever seen before, and the most amazing part was watching the family celebrate with awe and fascination similar to mine, even though it was so customary to them. I left with a new understanding of what Shabbat could really feel like, and a goal to more fully connect to its integrity and intensity. Practically, when I leave my seminary bubble, this may mean making an effort to hear kiddish every Friday night in college, saying shacharit Shabbat mornings, or even just taking an extra minute to be grateful.
One of the most valuable ways of learning about Judaism for me has been diversifying my perspective. Through experiencing customs, practices, and lifestyles so far from my own, I have began to truly understand the complexity and variability of my religion on a level deeper than just reading a book or watching a movie. I feel extremely lucky to have the opportunity of such unique experiences at my fingertips during my year in Israel.
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Sydni Burg is a 2017 graduate of Solon High School. She is spending this year studying in Jerusalem in a seminary called Midreshet Moriah. There, she takes religious classes on all topics, books, concepts and laws of Judaism.