One month into my semester in Israel, I can’t help but think about how grateful I am for the people I’ve met here so far. In particular, I am astonished by the generosity of local families and organizations that are here to ensure we have the best time possible.
About a week into our time here, my roommates brought me to meet a man named Jeff Seidel, whom most of them had heard of before coming to Israel. Jeff Seidel moved to Israel in 1981 from Chicago and has developed an impressive career in outreach programs in Israel. He runs the Jeff Seidel Jewish Student Centers, which provide opportunities and experiences for English-speaking college students who have come to Israel. The group of us went to an opening event at the Jeff Seidel Center near our campus, and I left absolutely mind-blown.
The Jeff Seidel Center (JSC) hosts a series of events for students all semester, some at the JSC and others across Israel. Each Tuesday night, we head to the JSC for a speaker and dinner. On Monday, they brought us to Jerusalem to drive all-terrain vehicles in the Jerusalem hills, right along the border of the West Bank (a zone of serious Arab-Israeli tension here in Israel). In March, we will be going to the south of Israel for a “Shabbaton” that includes rappelling in a crater and visiting a winery. After the first meeting, I was ready to call my parents and ask for some money because the opportunities were too good to pass up — until I found out it was all free. The JSC is funded by philanthropists that support students who come to Israel and hope to enrich our experience as much as possible. I was so shocked that something so incredible could exist for free.
Seidel himself has met celebrities such as the Rolling Stones, Jay Leno, Amare Stoudemire, Ivanka Trump and more. He is essentially a legend. Here in Tel Aviv, he works with another man, Rabbi Dov Lipman, whom we have also become quite close with. Last weekend, Dov and his wife, Dena, invited some of us from the JSC to their home for Shabbat. This was my first time truly celebrating Shabbat, and doing so at Rabbi’s house was a very unique experience.
Shabbat, as I mentioned in a previous article, is the Jewish Sabbath and takes place every Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown. It’s supposed to be a day of rest, which is why much of Israel kind of shuts down during this time. Within the home, there are other specific rules, depending on the degree to which you follow Shabbat. Rabbi Dov and his family are Orthodox Jews, so their Shabbats are about as legitimate as you can get. For example, some of the rules include no writing, erasing, using the phone, driving, riding in cars, shopping, and turning on or off anything that uses electricity. When we arrived for Shabbat on Friday evening, the lights were on, and they remained on until Shabbat was over on Saturday, because you can have lights on as long as the flip isn’t switched during the actual period of Shabbat.
It was an immersive cultural experience, and an interesting one for me as Shabbat is part of my religion, but never something my family or I have paid much attention to as reform Jews. On Saturday, we had a large Shabbat lunch with the Rabbi and his family, and then went for a long walk outside. The area we were in, located just outside Jerusalem, follows the laws of Shabbat pretty seriously. We walked in the middle of the road as we strolled through the town, because there were almost no cars out driving; families were outside, kids were playing, and nearly everybody we passed said “Shabbat Shalom!” — the typical Shabbat greeting. It was incredibly peaceful, and though at first glance the long list of Shabbat restrictions seems overwhelming, I can now see how and why people follow these rules once a week, every week. It felt like a cleanse.
Between Rabbi Dov, his family and the Jeff Seidel Center, I have found myself surrounded by a group of incredibly supportive and generous people. At that first meeting at the Jeff Seidel Center, I never would have guessed that I soon would have a new family in this home away from home.