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A Masa program participant writes about her current experience living in Israel

Introduction: In the Sept. 14 issue of The Jewish Post & News we had an article about Masa Israel Journey, a program for students and young professionals who might like to travel to to Israel to participate in an immersive four-to-10-month experience. Here is an account written by a young woman by the name of Laura Soda who is currently in Israel on a Masa program:

Growing up as a Jewish young adult in White Rock, I always had mixed feelings about celebrating the high holidays. On the one hand, I enjoyed the traditions and the feeling of community that I experienced when we would go to services and spend time with our small White Rock Jewish community. However, early fall has always been a hectic and stressful time for our family. Aside from Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, there was the beginning of a new school year, all four family birthdays falling within a month of each other, and finally Thanksgiving – altogether a six-week family marathon.

During the time of the Jewish holidays, I was also 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 very little cultural, ethnic, or religious diversity. There were two other Jewish kids at my school that I knew of, but we rarely – if ever – acknowledged our mutual Jewish connection outside of the context of Hebrew school, synagogue, or youth groups. 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 ten-month program teaching English in Israel with Masa Israel Teaching Fellows. 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 in the community 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 in to 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. As I stood in line at the grocery store for forty minutes, it struck me that we were all there for the same reason. And despite these frustrations, they were far outweighed by the positive moments.

Recently, I celebrated my first Israeli Rosh Hashana with a host family that I was connected to through the program. The Lipik family welcomed us, quite literally, with open arms and have made us feel at home in a place that’s about as far from home as it gets. My roommate and I walked to Rosh Hashana services in the morning and passed many others doing the same. Suddenly, it 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 myself, my Rosh Hashana experience felt surprisingly 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 over the flames for dessert. And throughout it all, I realized that this year, I don’t have to explain myself. This year, it is my turn to lean– 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 Hashana 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.

For more information, visit masaisrael.org/canada.

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