Chaya’s Final Israel Blog

Hey everyone!

{Firstly an excuse – you would/should have received this last week whilst I was flying back home, but for the last week of Sem my phone (with which I have written all my articles) was broken.} 

I am back in Manchester! I have had an amazing year in Israel, and I loved sharing all about it with you. So here goes the last and final Israel tidbit! 

Lag B’omer was amazing. In England you were celebrating the Coronation and Bowdon Shul had its famous Fire Pit, but in Israel we did things slightly differently. We started with an all-nighter in Meron. Praying by the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose Yartzheit is on Lag B’Omer, was really inspirational. I wasn’t able to be there as long as I wanted as it was packed and we were only able to have a few moments each – but it was still worthwhile. We then moved up to the famous blue roof on top of the grave where we were able to see all the dancing going on in the area below us; it was electric, and a group of us started a women’s circle of dancing.

Off to one side were individual groups of whole families, each one dancing around a young boy sitting on a high chair; it was the little boy’s third birthday and they were giving him his first haircut – his Opshernish. Suddenly we saw all the women moving in one direction, so we followed and we found ourselves right in front of the huge bonfires. Because of the accident 2 years ago the fires were done in a secluded area with separate times for men and women coming to see, instead of being right in the middle of the dancing. The strangest part about the whole experience was when people started throwing towels and shirts, and some whole bottles of oil over people’s heads into the fires. Apparently it’s a custom to add something of your own into the fire. We were there for hours, just soaking up the whole atmosphere of this once in a lifetime experience. Finally, at 4am we started heading back to Tzafas, for as much as we wanted to stay all night, we had a busy day tomorrow. 

A few short hours later after barely any sleep, I went with a group of 10 to Chatzor, a small city some half an hour from Tzafas to help run a children’s parade. Once we had finished there, we joined up with a larger group of around 50 Sem girls and went to south Tzafas where we helped with a huge parade. It was, as I learnt along the way, actually 10 separate parades that would all join into one. I was in charge of the group that was the furthest away from the meeting point, so as we went along more and more children joined in, until we arrived at the central location with a group of over 200 children: it really was an amazing and inspirational sight.

By this point night was falling, and we went straight from the parades to the Sem Bonfire. This we built ourselves and sat around singing late into the star filled night of a Galilee sky.

As I have previously told you, part of the Sem program includes Shabbatons, and for some reason this next one was back in Meron. Many Israelies had been camping along the mountain for the past two weeks and some were still there enjoying the aftermath of Lag B’Omer. This created an interesting sight seeing all the different makeshift tents and cars turned in houses dotted all over. I have been privileged to experience many wonderful Shabbatot during my year in Israel, and this was definitely amongst the top: it was a most meaningful time and we spent most of it by the grave of the great Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, hero of the Jewish resistance against Rome and one of the most influential voices within the Talmud.

Sem life runs at the speed of light, and a short two weeks later was Shavuos and the Sem took us all to Yerushalayim. I have been there many times before, both with Sem and with my family, but this was something different. We were staying in a dormitory by Zion Gate – right above the gravesite of King David (Yes I know, ancient graves of our Biblical and Rabbinical leaders seems to have been a running theme!) What can I say, it was arguably the best location to stay in in Yerushalayim over Shavuos; King David’s Yartzheit is on Shavuos and there were people there constantly, at all times of day and night, and we were right in the thick of it.

Not that we needed any excuse, but on Shavuos there is a tradition to stay up all night long, albeit in order to learn Torah in preparation for hearing the 10 Commandments. It was a long night filled with lessons, talks, songs, quite a lot of coffee and some snoring as well. Then before dawn was even a hint on the horizon, we made our way to the Kosel to begin Shacharis. Now that was a once in a lifetime experience; hearing the Torah’s description of the monumental events at Mount Sinai, the sound of thunder, the call of the Shofar and the Giving of the Torah by Hashem, listening to those words being read just as the sun started to make its way over the horizon and peaked over the Kosel and the Temple Mount is something I will always treasure and never forget.

We had arrived at the Kosel Plaza at 5.00 am when it was still pitch black, but when we left at 8, there was a brilliant sunshine bathing everyone there in a light that was somehow purer and more special than usual. The Kosel was packed, there were so many Jews from so many different walks of life all converging on the Kosel at this one time, for this special and holy experience; it was absolutely incredible. 

After Davening we helped run a booth at the entrance to the Kosel Plaza giving food and water to people who, having spent all night learning, had to now make the long trek back to their homes; for some this was a 2 hour walk to the outer edges of the new city of Yerushalayim. We were a 10 minute stroll to Zion Gate!

As I mentioned, Shavuos is also King David’s Yartzheit, and many people take the opportunity to Daven at his grave. Well we were staying right there, although due to the crowds it was still difficult to get right in. However, after a year of experience, especially with the crowds at Meron just a fortnight earlier, I was able to make my way right to the front and had the merit to read the words of King David’s Tehillim and Daven for all of my family and friends.

As you know, other than Rosh Hashana, all Yomim Tovim in Israel are just one day, but as Shavuos was a Friday we went straight into Shabbos so it was like a 2 day Yom Tov anyway. In a previous family trip to Yerushalayim, Daddy had taken us to the famous Churvah Shul – built in the early 1700’s, destroyed by the Ottomans not long afterwards, rebuilt in the mid 1800’s where it stood in brilliant magnificence until it was destroyed by the Arabs in 1948 and remained a ruin (Churvah in Ivrit) until it was beautifully restored in 2010. With its ornate domed ceiling it’s renowned for its splendid and rousing Kabbolas Shabbos service, but unfortunately I was in for a bitter surprise as when a Yom Tov goes straight into a Shabbos they skip the melodic Kabbolas Shabbos and go straight to Maariv! Luckily the Kosel was just a few minutes walk away so I went there instead.

The next morning, I went to the Tzemach Tzedek, the Chabad Lubavitch Shul in the Old City, established back in 1845. This Shul is unique, being the only one that is still in its original form. When Israel won the war of Independence but lost control of the Old City in 1948, every other Shul, some like the Churvah with a long and illustrious history, were all destroyed. This Shul right in the heart of the old city, situated above the ancient Roman Cardo (which at the point was still covered in centuries of rubble and would not be discovered for a few decades) was the only one to survive. Although it then had another scare, when in 1967 after the IDF liberated the Old City putting it back into Jewish hands, the government decreed that all public buildings had to be demolished and rebuilt as they were unstable due to the bombings and the shelling during the wars of ‘48 and ‘67. Of course the Lubavitch community put up a fight and argued that it was unthinkable for the Jewish government to destroy the one Shul that the Arabs had left standing in the Old City of Yerushalayim.

On Shabbos afternoon we completed a most special and spiritual 48 hours, with a grand singing session with over 200 women all sharing an inspiring experience as our voices joined as one as the sun set over Yerushalayim and an unforgettable Shavuos and Shabbos.

But it is not only spiritual experiences, and that evening after Shabbos I had an amazing visit: Iain and Margaret Goldrein met me for supper in the Mamilla Mall. I really enjoyed spending time with fellow Bowdonites, catching up on all the news and of course having a heated discussion with Iain about Zionism and Religion!

Once we got back to Tzafas after Shavuos, we began a crazily intense two and a half weeks. In addition to my regular lessons and exams, I volunteered to be part of a committee working on the ‘Farbrengen Book’, which would be a transcript of every single speaker we had had throughout the school year – all the informal talks and gatherings, everything outside of the core lessons. For the next week and a half there was virtually no sleep for any of us on this committee, with the night before our exams starting being an actual all nighter. The book with over 40 talks in it, had to be completed in time so it could be printed and distributed by the end of the school year. It was a crazy amount of work, but it was really amazing and extremely rewarding when on the last day of term we were given our copy of the book: those long hours of work sure paid off. 

My final “Shabbat Chofsha – Free Shabbos” of the year was spent in Ashdod. There was a heat wave (and that’s when my phone literally fried) but we had a really interesting Shabbos, as my host family did not speak a word of English. It was really exciting for me to see how well my Ivrit has become, so much so that my friend (also an English, well American speaker) and I even started talking in Ivrit to each other 🙂 

Then it was straight back to Tzafas – with a broken phone and a worried set of parents back in Bowdon who couldn’t get hold of me – for the all-nighter I mentioned before, and exams first thing on Sunday morning. This was a marathon of tests; 3 a day for 9 days, but it was actually a lot of fun reviewing everything we had learnt over the course of this year, and we even managed to squeeze in some time and convinced a few of our favorite teachers to give us some special lessons.

Then, and I can’t believe I am saying this, came our last day of Sem. It began with a grand banquet the previous evening that culminated with one final Kumzits singing session then lasted throughout the night. I left at 3.00 am as I did not want to be late for the final day of learning at 7.00 am. We had our last three lessons and then just like that it was over.

We packed our clothes, left behind gifts for our friends from school who were going to Tzafas next year, and spent an emotional day saying goodbye to friends as busload by busload they left to the airport and all four corners of the world. I was on the last bus out, but still had an 8 hour wait in the airport, which meant I saw everyone leaving: saying goodbye was not easy. My phone was still broken, but this being Israel I was able to ask random people in the airport if I could borrow theirs and keep mummy and daddy updated before my flight home.

It has been an amazing year, a year of growth and education in all aspects of my life. A year of knowledge, of friends and personal achievements.I feel so privileged and blessed to have been gifted this experience, and even more so to have a community such as ours that I have been able to share this with.

I hope you have enjoyed my little taste of life in Israel as a seminary girl, that you have lived it vicariously through my blogs and that I didn’t bore you, but actually managed to entertain and maybe even to have successfully given over some of the lessons I learnt.

So for the last time: 



P.S.  Next year my blogs will please G-d come from the Big Apple and the City of New York as I go on to Sem Beis in Crown Heights

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  • Roy Laddin June 22, 2023   Reply →

    Kol Hacovod Chaya times a hundred! Wonderful,moving expressive blog.Glad you had a ‘ free and frank ‘ discussion with Iain Am Yisrael Chai
    Very warmest regards from Roy and Val

  • Lorraine Stross June 23, 2023   Reply →

    We’re so proud of your achievements Chaya, you make all the experiences sound very exciting & inspiring. Your command of the English language is fantastic and brings everything to life. Looking forward to seeing you and hearing more stories. Wishing you good luck in the future, lots of love from Ralph and Lorraine

  • Alan and Lorna Berg June 23, 2023   Reply →

    Hi Chaya,
    Welcome home. What an entertaining ,informative and inspiring blog. Definitely your best so far.
    How on earth you survive on so little sleep is amazing.
    The community is so proud of you and your amazing achievements. You are a fine example of what it is to be an orthodox and worldly young girl
    We wish you hatzlacha in all your future endeavours and hope you continue to be a source of pride to your dear parents and the Bowdon community
    Shabbat Shalom
    Alan and Lorna

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