A Journey of Study and Self-Discovery:
From the West Coast to the Western Wall, and Back Again!
By Alicia Cohen, Occidental College
It All Begins With An Email
Over Thanksgiving weekend in 2000, my parents told me that if I were to be accepted for birthright israel that coming winter, they weren't sure how they would feel. I believe I responded, "If somebody offers me a free trip to Israel, I'm going to take it."
On December 17, 2000 I received an email that forever changed my life. I learned that I had been pulled in from the waiting list, and was going to be part of the KOACH birthright israel trip.
Our ten-day whirlwind tour of Israel was amazing. Both the KOACH and Israeli staff members were incredible -- a better team couldn't have been put together! I was a part of so many amazing experiences, and I'm sure that, in the future, epiphanies and emotions will be triggered from this trip and the seeds it has planted within me.
My family and I are members of a Conservative Synagogue, but kashrut and Shabbat, while important factors of the Conservative Movement's doctrine, were never a significant part of my childhood. The time we took each day in Israel to davven and the experience of Shabbat in which I found great comfort, made me realize that these are aspects of Judaism that I want in my life. Each new place to which we journeyed inspired me to seek out its historical significance, as well as to look introspectively.
Upon my return to Los Angeles, I knew two things for certain. First, I wanted to visit Israel again and second, I desperately wanted to learn more!
At the end of February, I found myself again engulfed in the KOACH experience. This time, in America, a large number of my birthright israel friends were reunited at the KOACH Kallah in Philadelphia. Strangely, the Kallah not only gave me closure to my birthright israel experience, but it opened a new and exciting path for me as well.
At the Kallah, while I was introducing myself to the group, someone burst out "You're from LA! We've got to talk!" I made a point to seek out this man, who I soon would learn was Daniel Greyber, a student at the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism. Daniel had started a program called Lishma, an egalitarian summer-long yeshiva-study program for young adults at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California. The more Daniel told me about the program, the more I knew I wanted to go. It seemed as though it was exactly what I was looking for to continue to learn, both about Judaism and about myself.
After the Kallah and for the next few months, Lishma was constantly in my mind. As theater is one of my loves, the summer is a time I use to devote to working on plays. Not working over the summer also meant financial difficulty and I wanted to spend social summer time with friends. I realized that Lishma was what I needed, though, and Daniel was even able to help me find scholarship funds to cover my entire tuition.
Off to Ojai
On July 3, I entered the magical world of Lishma and Camp Ramah for the first time. The Lishma experience is beyond terrific. The schedule seems daunting, with over five hours each day for fives days each week filled with text study. I had never attempted studying like this before! Dissecting Talmud, Midrash, Gemara, and Torah, using the Hebrew and Aramaic, as well as English translations... I was delighted at the opportunity to do something different. I was extremely overwhelmed, but in a good way. I wanted to be there. I wanted to learn!
The people at Lishma were amazing. Although we were a small group we created an incredible bond. The staff was incredibly supportive, and I am in contact with them, as are the other participants. And of course, there were our scholars...
Scholars Who Were In Residence
For the first three weeks we were honored to learn with Rabbi Mimi Feigelson, from Jerusalem. Mimi is the most dynamic woman I have ever met! Mimi was there from the beginning and she really was a driving force in creating the atmosphere that lent itself well to our overall goals. An incredible teacher, Mimi was a gift that I will treasure always.
The last two weeks we spent with Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, who teaches at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Jonah was able to unlock the text in many ways that were incredible to me. With the aid of the 'dictionary sheets' that he created, my hevruta (study partner) and I were, for the first time, able to study a text without being stuck with the interpretation embedded in the English translations that we were using. It was an incredible feeling to be able to get through a text in Hebrew instead of English! Throughout the summer we were blessed to spend evenings with incredible rabbis and scholars from the Los Angeles area and around the world.
While we devoted most of our time to learning, there is more to studying than texts! Each Tuesday we ventured into LA and did a variety of social action projects. We also had participant-planned evenings, took 'field trips' to the beach and had plenty of free time to enjoy the beautiful Camp Ramah scene. One of the highlights of the summer was our camping trip to Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast. Lishma gave me the opportunity to live "Jewishly" and experience observance in a supportive, open, caring Jewish community. I learned about myself and started to have an idea of where Judaism fit into my life. The end of the summer found me a different person in so many ways. I also realized that I wanted to continue studying, and the best way to do that would be to go to Israel for an extended period of time someday.
Returning to the "real world" continues to be a struggle. I firmly believe that having community is central to Judaism, and helps us to survive. I have the greatest community that I could imagine in with those whom I spent the summer, and others with whom I traveled to Israel and those I have met through KOACH. Unfortunately, this is a virtual community, not a physical community. My school is small and while the Jewish community here is strong and growing each year, it can't always give me what I need spiritually. Attending the KOACHWest Fall Ramah Kallah and the KOACH Kallah in Chicago this year were wonderful opportunities. Not only did I feel that I was more part of a community, but I also long for those weekends when I get a "real Shabbat" and am surrounded by people who understand why I do what I do.
This year's Kallah (see photos) was a very different experience for me. While I came knowing a handful of people, both from my birthright israel trip and the West Coast Kallah, I made a conscious effort to meet people from all over the country, and to learn as much as possible from them. In many ways, it was an even better experience than the 2001 Kallah had been, because I met so many new people!
So, my journey continues. I struggle daily to find ways to be able to be both an observant Jew, and to be a good theater artist. Judaism and theater are what keep me going, and sometimes they also conflict with each other. I have to make choices on either side, and I am striving hard to reach the perfect balance.
And, yes, I will go back and study in Israel, maybe even sooner than I thought. If someone had told me when I started my second year of college that by the end of the year I would have had all those powerful Jewish experiences, I would have had a hard time believing it! If they had told me that I would spend the following summer in a yeshiva program and be asked numerous times if I was considering the rabbinate, or that before my senior year, I would also be starting to plan a return to Israel to spend a year there, I would have thought they were crazy! But, now, I can't imagine my life any other way.
The past 14 months have been an incredibly intense and emotional time and it feels like I got the email saying that I was going to Israel was just yesterday...
Note from the Editor, Audrey Shore: Alicia's article gives us the inside scoop on two fabulous programs in which YOU may be eligible to participate! For more information on birthright israel, visit www.birthrightisrael.org.
The next KOACH birthright israel trip is scheduled for the Winter of 2002/3. For information on Lishma, visit www.lishma.org. Looking for other summer study opportunities? How about the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem (www.uscj.org/yeshiva), the Naaseh program at Camp Ramah in Nyack or the Northwoods Kollel at Camp Ramah Wisconsin (both of these can be found at www.campramah.org)? If summer in the city is more your style, try the Summer School of The Jewish Theological Seminary (www.jtsa.org).
Want to discuss this article with your KOACH e-friends? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and share your thoughts with the members of our listserv. Have a similar experience to share? Would you like to write a response piece? Email me, Audrey, at email@example.com today!