Rabbi Reflection - A Return to Home From Home

Enjoying a Shabbat Shabbaton and living family life as “Jewish civilians” in Israel

By Rabbi Jodie Gordon / Hevreh of Southern Berkshire

“Welcome home.” 

That’s what the guy at passport control said to us when we landed at JFK Airport after nearly three months away during my sabbatical – “ welcome home.” As a born and bred New Yorker, it almost didn’t faze me, until my older daughter Lola looked up and said, “That’s funny. He said welcome home, and so did the guy who stamped our passports when we landed in Israel!” As a newly seasoned traveler, it’s possible she thinks this is just the customary greeting for arriving anywhere — which is a very hopeful and generous view of the world we live in. But in reality – our return to the US was a return home from home.

I feel fortunate that during this Shmitta year, I could take my sabbatical from my work here at Hevreh as a rabbi and spend that time living in Tel Aviv in an apartment that, coincidentally, was on JL Gordon Street. My husband Josh worked remotely while our daughters were with Amit, an amazing Israeli woman who was their tutor/nanny/music teacher/personal tour guide to life in Tel Aviv. On those days when my family were all spoken for, I would lace up my sneakers, grab my Kindle and just start walking.

Walk a bit, stop for a coffee and a few chapters.

Walk a bit more, find a beautiful park, or maybe a bench on the tayelet in front of the ocean, and a few more chapters, or sometimes a whole book, before walking a bit more and finding something to eat or look at or, sometimes, something beautiful to buy. Two nights a week, I would leave our little apartment on Gordon Street to go to my Hebrew class, where I was surrounded by young olim from South Africa and France who had never met a Reform rabbi before.

On the days when we didn’t have childcare, Josh and I would invent family itineraries for the day, making our way around Tel Aviv, taking day trips around the mercaz, balancing between what we jokingly called “Birthright Gordon-Bloom” days when we’d visit historical sites and museums, and days that were just plain fun.

Since we’ve been back, lots of people have asked: “So, how was it?” 

And I’ve been thinking about how to answer — how to put into words the experience of total relocation and what that time and place meant to our family and to me. My answer to that question orbits around two core truths. First, as Mother Theresa said, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” And secondly, one way or another, my family’s life is organized around the people of Israel. Hevreh is our organizing principle, and without Hevreh, it literally took the land, state, and people of Israel to fill that space with something equally enlivening. The Jewish people and the rhythm of the Jewish year make our lives brighter, richer, and more vibrant.

Before leaving on this sabbatical, we were asked by friends and family: “So, what’s your plan? What are you going to do on your sabbatical?”. 

My real answer, the deep-down heart truth, was that beyond the reading and writing I wanted to do and the Hebrew class I took – my real goal for my sabbatical was to live as a Jewish civilian. I wanted to soak up and live on Jewish time — and I wanted to do it next to my family, not from the distance that my professional life often necessitates. Our time in Israel followed one of my favorite arcs on the Jewish calendar: just ten days after we arrived, it was Purim. One month later, Pesach. And then, like blasts of the ram’s horn, the siren for Yom HaShoah, and then Yom HaZikaron. And then, the exuberance of Yom Ha’atzmaut. 

Perhaps even more remarkable were the twelve blissful Shabbatot spent with Josh and our girls — many weeks with his sister and her family in Jerusalem, sometimes with the next-door neighbors on Gordon Street who became our friends, and, a few times, just the four of us around the wobbly Ikea table in our rental apartment with tea candles and juice, and the challah that eventually won our neighborhood taste test as the best one around. After dinner, the favorite of the new family Shabbat traditions: Shabbat Sha’brownies. 

It wasn’t long after we arrived that I began to encounter the question: “So, how long are you here for? You’re just visiting?” Taxi drivers especially love to ask this question — and usually follow up with some version of “What are you waiting for? Make aliyah!” I swear, the State of Israel should pay taxi drivers to do their hasbara outreach work. I quickly learned the word for sabbatical— “Ani ba’Shabbaton m’avodah sheli.” I’m here on a Shabbaton, a sabbatical from my work, I would answer. 

And truly, the last three months were a Shabbat Shabbaton – a grand cessation from the routines and the work that shape my life and the life of my family. For three months, the people and the land of Israel became the organizing principle for our time – the weekend began after the girls’ afterschool programs n Thursday. 

Friday mornings were for debating where to buy a challah this week. 

Shabbat mornings were for driving to Jerusalem to see Bibi, Josh’s ailing mom, and Shabbat lunch at my sister-in-law’s house, where the girls commandeered the Legos long discarded by their older cousins.

Saturday night, or Motzei Shabbat, was a time for a walk to our favorite gelato place, Golda (although, to be honest, so were many other nights of the week). 

And on Sunday morning, Amit would arrive to get the girls going on their weekday adventures, Josh would catch up on work or go visit his mom, and I would start reading and walking once again. 

Perhaps the biggest thrill for me was to see all of this joyful Jewish living unfold through the eyes of my two daughters, who are both old enough to notice and articulate what it means to see Jewish life everywhere, all around you, every day.

They delighted in tasting a new flavor of hamantaschen every day leading up to Purim (chocolate halvah was a favorite). 

They laughed at the cab driver’s Purim costume on our way to hear megillah and attend the Purim Carnival at Beit Daniel, the Reform congregation in Tel Aviv. 

They made it until 11 p.m. on the night of Passover Seder, cackling hysterically with visiting friends when their older cousin Liam knocked on the door dressed as Elijah, and they decided that the store brand chocolate-covered matzah was the best because it had sprinkles. 

They stood quietly next to Josh and me as traffic stopped on Dizengoff Street. at 10 a.m. on Yom HaShoah, listening to the siren and then asking, “Why?”

They sat quietly next to their cousin, Sammy, who was in full IDF uniform when the siren sounded once more, signaling the start of Yom HaZikaron.

They wore headbands with Stars of David and blinking lights and dressed in blue and white danced in Safra Square in Jerusalem until way past their bedtime on Yom Ha’atzmaut.

They learned that cucumber is the best vegetable in Israel both because it’s tasty and fun to eat whole without cutting it up and also because its name in Hebrew is very fun to say — melafafone.

They tried new foods, and both agree that falafel is better as a side dish without all that tahini making it soggy.

They figured out how to be friends with kids in the ocean and at the playground without much shared language.

They got to visit their next-door neighbor friends’ schools and, I imagine, imagined what it would be like -to go to school there themselves.

They got lifted in chairs on their birthdays as we sang “HaYom Yom Huledet” and counted to shesh (6) for Goldie and a week later to shemoneh (8) for Lola.

And so, when the man at passport control at JFK Airport said, “Welcome home,” I imagine that our girls now share that bittersweet mixed feeling that Josh and I have each time we return from time in Israel. And I am deeply grateful for that and for the fact that their attachment to the place and the people has been seeded by the time we spent together there.

Over the weeks and months ahead, I suspect I will have more to say; our time there was not all festivals and falafels.

Israel is complicated.

Jerusalem felt suffocating, and I struggled to explain to my kids why they couldn’t wear their tank tops on our Old City tour on an 85-degree day; or why I said I was a teacher when a cab driver asked me, not wanting to get into it a debate about Reform Judaism or whether women can be rabbis. 

Our time there was also marked by stabbings and shootings throughout the country – and my very first experience being on the receiving end of texts and WhatsApp messages asking, “Are you okay?” when the shooting at a bar just around the corner from our apartment happened.

More than ever, my Zionism feels strong, complicated, and very much alive.

And now, I am home – in the place that I love, with the people that I love, during the time of year that I love the most. And I am meditating on those two core truths with which I began: Mother Theresa’s maxim, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family,” and that my family’s life is organized around the people of Israel. Hevreh is our organizing principle. The broader Berkshire Jewish community – each of you, and the way we move together through the rhythm of the Jewish year, makes our lives brighter, richer, and more vibrant.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches in his famous work, The Sabbath:

“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”

As I re-enter this time and space post-sabbatical, my personal spiritual work is to hold on to the holiness in time that it gave me. My family and I take great joy in having this Hevreh — these people and this place as the beating heart of our Jewish lives, and I am so grateful to serve in this community.

Rabbi Jodie Gordon is a rabbi and director of education at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington. She co-hosts The OMFG Podcast: Jewish Wisdom for Unprecedented Times with Rabbi Jen Gubitz – find it on Spotify and other podcast hosting platforms. The photo shows Rabbi Gordon with husband (and Federation board member) Josh Bloom and daughters Goldie and Lola.