Austin Zoot is the Rabbi/Educator at Valley Temple in Wyoming, Ohio. For more content from Rabbi Zoot, visit his website, austinmzoot.com.
The sky had been the same bright blue for almost 100 straight days. As a Midwesterner, this was bizarre. I was used to the weather turning on a dime, transitioning from the light and breezy to storming and damp in a matter of hours. I didn’t notice it right away, but by my fourth month in Jerusalem, it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen a single drop of rain during my entire stay.
While the sky wasn’t changing, I certainly was. My Hebrew skills had risen exponentially in the first quarter of my year studying in Israel. And the fear and trepidation that had accompanied me for my first time living all by myself in a foreign country was starting to dissipate. I had figured out where to buy my groceries, how to pay my bills, and what to do with the pockets of free time between study sessions. I was starting to get a hang for this living abroad.
By far, my favorite routine I had built for myself was my Friday afternoon walk. I was (and still am) a creature of habit, so I crafted a routine that would allow me to feel the day of rest as it approached. The same restaurant, the same lunch, the same streets. The consistency of it was a support rail on the otherwise tumultuous reality of living on the other side of the world from my future wife, from my family and friends.
And as I slowly made Jerusalem my home, I noticed the tightening of the bond as I situated in the community. The waitress at my favorite lunch spot remembered my order like a regular. I exchanged pleasantries in my ever-polishing Hebrew as I bought challah from the same baker at the storefront that had a name I could never remember. And every person with whom I made eye contact made a point to exchange a charming “Shabbat Shalom.”
For all American Jews, we know what it is like to endure the constant “Merry Christmas” of December (although, apparently now it starts in late October…). We’ve been trained to smile and agree, to internalize the otherness of our unique practice. But in Israel, in the homeland of our people, the opposite is true. We wished one another a Shabbat Shalom independent of the faith of the recipient. Not because we were indifferent to the realities of our compatriot, but because we knew that a day of rest was universal, whether you were a member of the tribe or not.
When I would walk home, I’d call my family back in the states as they were just waking up for the day. They would ask after my health and safety, because to them, the first thought of Israel was a place of conflict and fear. But in those moments, it was easier to see the great experiment of modern Jewish autonomy at its finest.
Each morning, we offer a prayer that includes, “Or chadash al Tzion tair, v’nizkeh chulanu m’heirah l’oro.” “Let a new light shine upon Zion, that we all swiftly merit its radiance.” We ask for God’s blessing on our home, the home of our people, even while we are still working to deserve it. And, on those pre-Shabbat afternoons, I could feel the warmth of the sun, inviting each of us to spread that light and goodness to the other people sharing our world. For a day, it was easy to believe in great Zionist experiment, the idea that Jews deserve to live in a place where their Judaism can be centered and celebrated. For one day each week, it felt almost like we were beginning to earn the radiant glow of the sun.