Laura Soda, right, with her host family, the Lipiks, and some of her MITF colleagues at Rosh Hashanah. (photo from Laura Soda)
Growing up as a Jewish young adult in White Rock, I always had mixed feelings about celebrating the High Holidays. On one hand, I enjoyed the traditions and the feeling of community that I experienced when we would go to services. However, early fall has always been a hectic and stressful time for our family as well. Aside from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there was the beginning of a new school year, all four family birthdays falling within a month of one another and, finally, Thanksgiving. It’s a six-week family marathon.
During the High Holidays, I also was overwhelmed with the feeling of being the “token Jew” in every class. At the beginning of every school year, I dreaded having to approach the teacher and ask for time off so that I could observe holidays that most of my peers, and even some of my teachers, had never heard of. I almost had a sense of guilt, as if I were inventing holidays just to get out of class. All I wanted was to fit in and be like everybody else. And, in the White Rock of my childhood, there was little cultural, ethnic or religious diversity. There were two other Jewish kids at my school, but we rarely – if ever – acknowledged our mutual Jewish connection outside the context of Hebrew school, synagogue or youth group. It wasn’t that we were actively hiding our Jewishness; for me, I simply felt that any sign of difference was “uncool.”
I am currently on a 10-month program teaching English in Israel with Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (MITF). I am living in Kiryat Gat, a small, mostly religious up-and-coming city in the south of Israel. For the next 10 months, I will be teaching English to the children of the community in which I live. Most of the people here do not speak English, and I feel grateful to be in a place where I can help break language barriers and contribute to English language education. For me, however, it has been quite an adjustment.
With the challenges of settling into a new country, in a town where not many people speak English, I am overwhelmed by the tremendous sense of community and unity. Despite the inconvenience of the train and bus schedules around the holidays, it wasn’t just me being inconvenienced. For the first time in my life, I was in the same situation as everyone around me.
Recently, I celebrated my first Israeli Rosh Hashanah with a host family that I was connected to through the MITF program. The Lipik family welcomed my peers and I, quite literally, with open arms and have made us feel at home. My roommate and I walked to Rosh Hashanah services in the morning and passed many others doing the same. Suddenly, I realized that, although I had been prepared to feel like an outsider in a tight-knit community of people who were more religious than me, my Rosh Hashanah experience was so welcoming. I smiled at the children who listened to the shofar with wonder, and I was reminded that children are simply children, no matter where they live or what language they speak.
Later, we joined our host family at their backyard barbeque along with their extended family and friends, and we ate our hearts out as we basked in the smell of smokey chicken kebabs and toasted marshmallows for dessert. Throughout it all, it sunk in that, this year, I don’t have to explain myself. This year, it is my turn to learn – to watch and listen to how other Jews celebrate, being curious about the differences, but, more often, being surprised by the many similarities in our traditions. My first Rosh Hashanah in Israel taught me that although I am far from my home in Canada, I am exactly where I need to be – I feel right at home.
Laura Soda is currently on a 10-month program teaching English in Israel with Masa Israel Teaching Fellows. For more information on the MITF and other Masa programs, visit masaisrael.org.