5:30 p.m.: We got back to Beit Rutenberg (our hostel) exhausted, yet feeling enriched by all that we saw, learned, and experienced that day. Without much time to process all that happened or deepen our newly formed friendships, we embarked on the pre-Shabbat rush of creating shower schedules and getting ready before the sun sets. We would have plenty of time during Shabbat. 

6 p.m.: With just enough time for a quick call before my allotted shower slot, I called my grandmother to tell her about my trip and wish her a Shabbat Shalom.

6:30 p.m.: Quick shower. Even quicker deliberation over which Shabbat outfit to wear. Quick chat with my new roommates about room lights during Shabbat. Time to run.

6:45 p.m.: I quickly ran to the dining hall to light candles before heading with some of the group members to shul

7 p.m.: We stepped into the shul as the congregants were singing “Yedid Nefesh,” a traditional Shabbat song which is sung before Kabbalat Shabbat. As the tune echoed through the small 100-year-old Sephardi shul, the world outside melted away—as the sun is setting into the Mediterranean, time has lost its meaning.

The next 25 hours would blur into each other with light-hearted stories of terrible dates, good food, dramatic readings of Dostoevsky, discussions about Jewish values, arguments about circumcision, lovely walks in the breezy streets of Haifa, heart-to-heart conversations on a bench, laughter fits, meaningful friendships being formed and strengthened, and even more food. 

The melodies of davening rang through the shul, exactly like they do in my home base of Cambridge, 6,000 miles across the Atlantic. It hit me that I had never prayed at a Sephardi shul before. Even though the accent and pronunciation were different, the words, tunes, and prayer order were almost exactly the same as every other Ashkenazi shul I’ve been to. I was able to follow the prayers seamlessly and felt very at home.

Kabbalat Shabbat ended and the rabbi started speaking. He spoke with warmth and passion about those who dedicate themselves to Torah and how their lives are changed by it. At this point, my thoughts started wandering toward food and how my life will be changed by consuming it. We prayed Ma’ariv and headed to a hotel for dinner.

After wandering into a few wrong hotels, we finally found the place and walked into a room with a dazzling display of foods: meat-carving stations, a colorful salad bar, sushi platters, chicken dishes, a variety of side dishes, a soup bar, a bread table, and a gorgeous dessert buffet. We sat down at a huge table with the people we met earlier that day, our soon-to-be best friends, most of whom had arrived there before us. They saved us lots of food, which was wonderful because we got to the dining hall 15 minutes before the workers started clearing the food away. We made kiddush and hamotzi and enjoyed a lovely meal, with an occasional child stopping at our table to hang out with us. 

Back in Beit Rutenberg, bottles of wine and cans of beer were opened, snacks were passed around, and people were hanging out in small groups scattered around the room. I wanted to do something to help break the ice, so I started telling funny stories of family and roommate drama, initially to a small group, but eventually more and more people joined until the circle contained everybody. As everybody started feeling more comfortable with one another, the stories got more ridiculous and more people interjected and made comments. The short stories had turned into 20-minute long group discussions with many tangents.

Then we had a group activity of Jewish charades and guess-the-song. If the ice was broken during the storytelling session, now it was shattered and grounded into fine powdery snow. We laughed so much that we cried and bonded with each other as if we knew each other for years. After the activity, we took a walk to the top of the Bahai gardens and continued chatting, telling stories, laughing, and munching on snacks. 

The next morning, I got dressed, made coffee in the dining room and headed to the Sephardi shul with four other group members. The rest of the group stayed behind for an alternate activity. Though time was meaningless to me, it didn’t seem to stop for the congregation; the cantor was reciting the repetition of mussaf, essentially the concluding part of the morning services, as we arrived.

As we quickly finished our prayers, we were warmly welcomed by the community to join for a small kiddush that was set up outside. Small might have been an inaccurate term to describe it; there were different types of kugel, baked goods, chips, pickles, crackers, fish salads, and multiple bottles of soft drinks and liquor. I decided that though time seemed to be meaningless, it was still too early for a shot of arak; others had different views. The conversations with the congregation members started as polite get-to-know-you, but to my delight quickly progressed past that into a deep discussion, bordering on an argument, about Jewish life in Israel versus Jewish life in the diaspora and unnecessary halachic stringencies versus the required halachic baseline. 

We came back to Beit Rutenberg to find the rest of the group concluding their alternative activity on a gorgeous balcony with a breathtaking view downhill all the way to the shoreline. The sun reflected off of the balcony stones with soft yellow light, a perfect complement to the greenery dotted with colorful flowers and the beautiful deep blue of the ocean and sky. The reunited group decided to go for a walk before lunch. Or maybe it was after lunch? Time really did blur into one indistinguishable block. 

Lunch. More walks. Bahai gardens. Dramatic reading of a Dostoevsky passage about Madam Epanchin being worried about her 25-year-old single daughter who only seems to take interest in books and not in marriage. Game of frisbee. Heart-to-heart on a bench. Time for an afternoon activity.

We had a quick warm-up activity, during which we each chose a picture describing what Shabbat meant to us. I was surprised to learn about other people’s experiences with Shabbat, and what they thought about the state-mandated day of rest. Then, Keshet divided us into groups of three or four people and gave us a list of 20 Jewish values. Our task was to pick the top nine values and sort them into the three central core values most essential to Judaism; three important, but less central values; and three important, but really not central values. The catch was that all the members of the group had to agree about the ranking.

We sat there, Israeli, American, and Colombian Jews; religious and secular; Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, and we had to agree. It’s no easy task getting two Jews to agree about anything, let alone three or four Jews from different backgrounds and walks of life.

We discussed cultural Judaism versus religious Judaism, Jewish uniformity versus individualism, and shared with deep sincerity the things that made us feel the most Jewish. Our group finally agreed on an arrangement, and then it was time to merge with another group and start the exercise all over again.

The conversations we had, the experiences shared, the arguments made and their implications will resonate with me for a long time, much longer than the final set of values that we converged on after the process. I left that session with a much wider sense and deeper understanding of what Jewish identity means to different people. 

Another walk. Some downtime. Prayer of mincha. Time for Havdalah. 

8:30 p.m.: We’re back in normal space-time. Shavua tov.

ConnecTech is a year-long fellowship for MIT and Technion Jewish students. The primary focus is on student interaction—creating personal bonds between small core groups of students at each institute and strengthening a sense of Jewish peoplehood. For more information or to read our Fellows’ bios, visit our website.

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