I have been an Orthodox Jew my entire life.
I studied in the most prestigious religious institutions of Los Angeles, and spent last year at the Masa Israel-accredited Bnos Chava, an academically rigorous seminary in Jerusalem.
During my free time, I toured the streets of Jerusalem, and began to comprehend the identity of each Jewish sect. I believed I possessed Jewish pride in my heritage and homeland and needed no further inspiration.
During that year, my parents traveled to Israel.
My father planned to visit Ohr Sameach, the yeshiva that first inspired him to practice Judaism, and my mother was acting as a mentor for a Jewish learning program.
On Shabbat, I joined my parents and two hundred other mentors, students, yeshiva students, and faculty to experience the holy day in Tzefat.
During the three-and-a-half hour bus ride from Jerusalem to northern Israel, I felt a bit anxious about spending Shabbat with two hundred unfamiliar people, but I was also excited to finally understand how Ohr Sameach had revealed the beauty of Judaism and Israel to my father.
The bus followed the meandering verdant roads through Arab towns and Israeli settlements, until finally reaching our destination: Hotel Ron in Tzefat.
As the buses arrived, the Hotel Ron’s mountaintop became hectic.
As usual, there was a pulsing sense of anticipation for the approaching Shabbat festivities. The students—many who were not religious— arrived from a week of touring Israel’s physical splendor and spiritual sites.
Yeshiva students from numerous Jerusalem institutions joined the growing throngs along with the family members of the Or Sameach faculty. I found my parents standing next to the students’ bus, beaming.
After acquainting ourselves with Tzefat, we prepared for Shabbat.
Along with two hundred young men, rabbis, and a few women, we walked toward the center square where Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz wrote Lecha Dodi in the 1500s.
While the sun set behind the fertile Galilee mountains, two hundred voices rose in unison to welcome Shabbat. Bodies swayed in time to the rhythm of the haunting melody, eyes closed in concentration as we felt the presence of Shabbat descend among us.
I closed my eyes, savoring the feeling of serenity, that special brand of Shabbat tranquility. Never before had I felt the presence of Shabbat so potently.
After Friday night prayers, we climbed the stairs cut into the mountainside to reach our lodging. A buzz of spiritual high circulated through our large group and transferred to our Shabbat meal.
As the festive meal commenced, the college students, Yeshiva students, mentors, and Rabbi mingled and celebrated Shabbat as one, singing Shabbat zemirot with enthusiasm.
Blue jeans and sneakers marched behind black pants and dress shoes as everyone danced with joyous vigor, celebrating their close tie with the Jewish people. I observed the celebrations with wide eyes, storing the inspiring images in the recesses of my mind.
I finally understood the powerful life-changing gift that my father had experienced during his year in Israel: the joy of Judaism and living a Jewish existence.