Jerusalem is overrun with stray cats. Most of the week, they hang out on sidewalks and hide under parked cars, but on Shabbat they lounge in the middle of the street, baking in their patches of sunlight, daring you to move them or for a car to disturb their well-deserved nap.
I lived in Jerusalem this past year, and every Shabbat, I walked past those entitled, stinky felines and thought, “Even the cats know it is Shabbat.” What an opportunity for a first-year rabbinical student, to live a whole year in a place where everyone, from the Prime Minister to the stray animals, could feel that Shabbat is present.
Of course, at times my classmates and I kvetched. There seemed to be very little time to complete all our errands before the stores closed for Shabbat, and we hated the rushing around we felt we had to do every Friday. Despite the inconveniences, though, every week, when we heard the siren announcing that Shabbat had finally arrived, we couldn’t help but comment at the amazing gift we had been given.
You would think that after a few weeks the experience of Shabbat would become commonplace, but even during my last few weeks in Jerusalem, I would still walk out of my apartment in Jerusalem, surprised at how quiet a city could be. Shabbat seemed to envelope the city. Jerusalemites strolled around their neighborhoods, taking leisurely walks or visiting friends, and it was as if the entire city had been transported. Secular and observant Israelis alike live a different life on Shabbat, and I got to experience a little taste of that transformation too.
I left Israel a little over a week ago, and besides the obvious jetlag, I find myself still adjusting. My first Shabbat at home, I missed that thick, soothing silence that enveloped Jerusalem. I missed the feeling of Shabbat that was so pervasive even the cats knew something was different. But at the same time I relished my ability to simply get across town and use my time the way I saw fit.
I am struggling. Which experiences from this past year do I want to incorporate into my life back in the states? Do I want to include this pervasive experience of Shabbat in my practice? Is this something I want to encourage as a future rabbi? While I know I want to encourage as many people as possible to feel the difference of Shabbat in Israel, and especially the uniqueness of a Shabbat in Jerusalem, I am not sure what lessons I hope to encourage people to take back with them when they return. An all-encompassing Shabbat is not really a reality for many Jews living in North America, but would we benefit from not only having that experience, but making it a part of our practice?
The dissonance my classmates and I experienced this past year – between our lives as first-year rabbinical, cantorial and Jewish education students in Jerusalem and our day-to-day back home – is palpable, and we have discussed it at length. As someone who has just returned from a challenging and exciting year in Israel, I hope to share some of my experiences with others and to start a conversation about what we, as Reform Jews and Zionists, can learn from our interactions in and with Israel and perhaps how we can use these experiences to shape our beliefs and practices.
Let’s start with Shabbat. Have you ever celebrated Shabbat in Jerusalem or another part of the country? What did you notice and see? Did this experience impact how you observe Shabbat when you left Israel? Should we be trying to live a more Israeli-style Shabbat in North America?
Sarah DePaolo is a rabbinic intern at ARZA, starting her second year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.