Everyone knows that holidays translate to family time. It is during these treasured days of the year when you spend time together and catch up with each others lives. I once thought that this was all there was to it, and believed that being at home would be the most fulfilling and ideal way to spend my holidays. I came to these conclusions because as a Jew, and especially in the home I grew up in, family was central. My first year in college I heard about a program which sent students all over North America for two different holidays, one at the beginning of the the year and one at the end in order to bring cheer and spirituality to struggling communities. I immediately dismissed this idea because of years of associating holiday with family.
At the beginning of my second year of college my roommate pushed me out of this comfortable yet limiting notion, and forced me to sign up on the program with her. We filled out a questionnaire about ourselves and were told that we would be paired up with two guys. The location—unknown. Despite my misgivings about the whole expedition, I began to find myself thinking about all of the exciting possibilities of where we would be sent. Finally the day of the training session came and I picked up our folder and read “Kitchener, Ontario.” I will loosely translate this location as one hour’s drive from Toronto, but still pretty much middle-of-nowhere Canada. The mystery of never having heard of Kitchener counteracted all of the hesitation I had previously felt, and I began to look forward to the upcoming holiday which I would spend there.
I was told that we were taking the train. Packed up and ready my roommate and I headed out to Penn Station, printed our tickets and located our male counterparts. When we were cozily settled in our seats we all chatted, prepared our religiously inspirational speeches, and decided which spiritual songs to sing. The rabbi of the community met us at the station and drove us to the homes where we would be staying, all the way regaling us with numerous entertaining and crazy anecdotes from his past. The next day was a blur. We helped the rabbi and his wife with their six children, while preparing his house and the synagogue for the holiday, because of centrality of both locations.
Later that night we gathered in the synagogue for prayer and afterwards spent time getting to know the community members. We learned that although the synagogue was large, the Jews in that area had become disinterested in religion and the rabbi, who had only just recently moved to the neighborhood was trying to jumpstart religious activity and involve more people. The holiday that we had come for was called Simchat Torah, which celebrates the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings and marks the beginning of the new one. As is the custom, we took the Torah scrolls from the ark and carried them around the sanctuary seven times while and singing, dancing and rejoicing. The members of the synagogue gladly joined us, smiling with such joy while we led the singing and dancing, celebrating the Torah, what it represents. We later learned that this was the first time in twenty years that they had celebrated in such a spiritual and lively way.
If you would like to see a clip of what Simchat Torah looks like click here
The rabbi came to us after the holiday was over and thanked us profusely for enriching the holiday for his community. He said that many of them had come up to him afterwards to tell him what a difference we had made, and some offered money to bring us back during the year. I was personally inspired by these people who so voluntarily craved religion and spirituality. Although it is important for us to spend time with our family during the holidays, I believe that it is of equal or more importance to be involved in reaching out to others at this time. Enhancing and strengthening the religious and spiritual experience of others will not only have a tremendous impact on them, but it will hopefully revolutionize the way you view your religion and experience spirituality.
Shira, Yeshiva University, Read my blog
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