gap year in israel

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I watched the sky turn from a light blue to a pale pink as I stood on the steps facing the Leonardo Plaza. The clock slowly ticking away the minutes until my friends and I could gorge on a break-fast meal. I took it all in with a few deep breaths— the captivating chants from the other side of the mechitza, the palm trees (I thought those were only in Florida?!) dotting the area, the street free of cars and free of noise, my newfound friends in their flowing skirts to my left and right, and the sky and its ever changing colors. Just twenty-four hours before I had begun grappling with my own Jewish identity and my definition of being a “good” Jew on the holiest day of the year.

Since I had caught a stomach bug (definitely not Corona), I had slept for most of the past two days, understanding my body needed three things that I was hesitant to give myself: sleep, water, and food. With the fast approaching, I shoved aside the pounding beat in my head and the queasy feeling in my stomach. My ancestors before me found the time and energy to fast on Yom Kippur. I needed to do so without fail, even if it meant actively ignoring my body. My friends and family tried to calm my anxieties reminding me that the Torah says “Pikuach Nefesh”— the preservation of life — overrides any religious law. Although I nodded along, the voice in my head pushed me to ignore their advice and to fast as I had in years prior. However, three hours after my meager pre-fast meal, I found myself staring at a plain pita and a glass of water sobbing. I sobbed because my heart hurt. I sobbed because I was so out of touch with myself. I sobbed because I felt like I failed to fulfill my Yom Kippur duties.

I lay in bed the next day with a pit in my stomach. I scribbled in my journal, reflecting on the past year to try to understand why I felt so down. The words on the page ebbed and flowed as I reviewed a year full of the brightest moments and the darkest days, the warmest laughs and the coldest tears, the hardest goodbyes and the easiest hellos. As I wrote, I still failed to pinpoint the part of me that was feeling uneasy. Maybe I missed my favorite Chabad rabbi and his inspirational services that open my eyes and blows my mind year after year. Maybe I missed the sight of my father beating his chest to the Selichot with tears in his eyes, reliving the high holidays in synagogue with his late father. Maybe I just missed home. I soon realized that I had unconsciously painted a picture for how I felt this holiday should unfold and how this upcoming year should unfold. Celebrating Yom Kippur in Israel meant to me that I would weld the unity of the Jewish people and sacred history of the land into an unforgettable divine experience all while fasting; pretty sky high expectations for a reform Jewish girl living in Israel during a pandemic. This metaphorical bar that I had to reach not only contorted my stomach, but also my perspective of Yom Kippur as a whole. It blurred the true meaning and led me astray.

Later on, as I stood facing the setting sun, I stared in a trance at the men swaying fervently as they proudly sang out the words of G-d. The intention with which they prayed radiated from their souls. That’s what Yom Kippur is about. I didn’t need to keep the fast or experience an extremely spiritual holiday. Yom Kippur is about my intention, my passion. My longing for forgiveness from others and from myself. My soul cried out. Not through prayer, but through physical tears. Tears of sadness, yes, but also of the realization that behind every broken fast is the possibility for so much more.