The months I spent at MASA Israel’s Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion were the most unbelievable ones of my life.
Soon after our arrival last August, we entrenched ourselves in Jewish learning. But a few weeks later, the yeshiva announced that Sept. 14 would be devoted to hesed work: helping underprivileged people build sukkas. While assisting an elderly woman, two friends and I hesitantly climbed the scaffolding on the outside of her one-bedroom apartment and attached the schach (covering) to the sukka. When the sukka was completed, the woman’s face glowed with appreciation and gratitude. Being able to assist a woman in fulfilling one of the simplest mitzvot in the Torah really struck me, and doing it in Israel, where every house within view also had a sukka on the balcony, was just amazing.
With the holidays over, the real grind — the winter learning period — began. But, four months of intense shiurim (classes) went by in a flash, and my personal growth left me in awe. Then, the yeshiva took a tiyul (tour) of the Negev and we hiked along sandy mountains, passing the spot where Abraham and Lot famously separated in Bereishit. Our barbecue under the stars was one of the most spiritual nights of my life. Singing songs and dancing with my friends, I never felt more secure and uplifted; nothing could take us away from our spiritual haven.
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On March 12, 2011, two terrorists massacred and butchered five innocent Israeli citizens in Itamar, and the country came to a standstill. I was among the 20,000 people at the funeral, paying my respects to the parents and children of the Fogel family. While listening to Israeli officials speak so beautifully about people they didn’t know, and seeing thousands of Israelis crying their eyes out made me feel a strong sense of unity among all Jews. It is sad that it takes a tragedy to bring a nation together, but at that funeral, when I might have feared for my life, I felt the proudest I ever had to call myself a Jew