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How a Summer in the States Shaped My Reform Jewish Identity

How a Summer in the States Shaped My Reform Jewish Identity

I was born and raised on Moshav Shavei Zion in the Northwest Galilee. It isn’t a religiously observant moshav (Israeli cooperative community or village), so I wasn’t surrounded by religion in the moshav or at home. My mom was born in America and she made aliyah after volunteering in a kibbutz; my dad is a second generation Israeli Holocaust survivor.

Growing up, I didn’t question my Jewish identity. It was always there and always obvious. Then, while I was in the army, I dated a guy who was religiously observant, Dati Leumi (National Orthodox), and for the first time, I was exposed to a religious and traditional lifestyle. Because of this exposure, I started to question myself and my own Jewish identity, which in turn led me to feel proud about being Jewish, but it also left me with lots of questions.

After the army, like every soldier, I had to decide what I wanted to do before I started my university studies. Because I had been a soldier accompanying a Birthright trip, I knew about the importance of making the connection between North American Jews and Israelis, and I wanted to continue to play a role promoting these connections. The experience made me realize that although we live on two different sides of the world, we have something in common and we should nourish it.

I decided to apply to the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) to be a counselor in a U.S. summer camp. That’s how I arrived at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), a Reform summer camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

At camp, I was a counselor in a unit for the oldest campers and one that was organized around total immersion in Hebrew. I lived in a cabin with two other counselors – both Israelis – and 14 girls between the ages of 14 and 15. From morning till lights out, the campers throughout the unit could only speak in Hebrew and the counselors – both Israeli and American – also only spoke in Hebrew.

I was especially moved by the way that the camp approached services, with an openness and flexibility that I never before experienced. I learned new melodies, new songs and paid attention to details in the service. It wasn’t just about being religious; it was also a fun thing to do – a fun way to open and close the day. I realized that there is a whole way of being Jewish that was new to me.

There were some aspects of services that seemed odd to me because I wasn’t used to them -- like women leading services and wearing kippot (yarmulkes). But the use of instruments and the clapping and dancing created lots of good vibes. The services brought light to the room. Even though everyone was getting up very early and praying, we also were waking up singing and thinking about things that are inside of us. What a delightful way to wake up and begin the day.

After camp, I travelled around the States visiting my family. Every Shabbat, I attended a different Reform synagogue – something I hadn’t done on other visits. Each one was unique, but every week I felt the power and meaning of being a Jew outside Israel and belonging to a Jewish community – something I hadn’t thought about before.

These Shabbat services made me more aware of the people around me. I got to make new friends and just as the community was excited to meet me – someone from Israel who came to celebrate Shabbat with them – I was thrilled to join them. For instance, when I went by myself to Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the end of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, they asked if anyone wanted to say a blessing publicly. One woman blessed her child for the start of a new school year and I blessed everyone for gathering together and giving me a welcoming Jewish community outside of Israel. 

The most welcoming thing about Reform Judaism is that it gives people an opportunity to be Jewish without forcing them to meet certain standards. Everyone is welcomed because we are all human beings – a perspective that is so different from what I knew about Judaism in Israel and one that gives me an opportunity to figure out how I want to express my own Judaism.

As I prepare to return to Israel, I know that I want to be part of a Reform Jewish community and get more people to know that this is an option for us as Jews in Israel.

Ella Steiner, a sabra, is a student at Hebrew University.

Ella Steiner
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