A funny thing happened at Moishe House

Taglit students rediscover their souls in Jerusalem.

Avram Mlotek poses with director of Jewish Student Life Sam Schachter and students from Hunter College Hillel.  (photo credit: SAM SCHACHTER)
Avram Mlotek poses with director of Jewish Student Life Sam Schachter and students from Hunter College Hillel.
(photo credit: SAM SCHACHTER)

It’s Friday evening. The sun has set and the streets are empty.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” Judah, one of my students, comments.
As the rabbinic intern at the Hunter College Hillel, I have the opportunity to lead my first-ever Taglit- Birthright trip over winter break. Together with our Israeli tour guide and other members of the staff, we walk with our 40 college-age students through Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood.
The energy in the streets is tangible.
“Where are we?” another student wonders, as we wander through alleys passing hassidim.
Our week has been full. Students felt the waters of the Mediterranean in Caesarea, learned of the Kabbala and Jewish mysticism in Safed and heard live music overlooking the Galilee on Rosh Hodesh Shvat. And today marked our entry into the ancient city of Jerusalem, visiting the Old City, the Western Wall and Mahaneh Yehuda, the city’s colorful and bustling market.
Tonight we’re headed to the Moishe House Jerusalem, a vibrant center of diverse Jewish life for secular, religious, leftist, rightist, Jewish and non-Jewish young adults. Moishe House members are recent college graduates, new olim who served as hayalim bodedim (IDF lone soldiers), having no immediate family in the country. Knowing its founders from college, I have been invited to lead Shabbat evening services tonight, along with the Birthright ensemble.
My students are just a few years younger than the Moishe House hevre. Most of them attend schools in the City University of New York system, while others attend Cornell, Wesleyan, Brandeis, Middlebury, Miami State, and the universities of Colorado and Missouri. These Taglit students come from a variety of religious and political backgrounds. None have been to Israel on an educational program and all identify as “Jewish,” even as they continue to learn what this means to each of them.
As we cross the street, Adam, one of the Moishe House founders and a dear friend, can be seen across the way, waving us in his direction.
Our group is welcomed inside Moishe House, its walls painted with the landscape of Jerusalem, as candles illuminate the pathway.
There are about 20 people gathered in the already crowded living room when our 40 Birthright students enter.
A niggun, a wordless melody, gets started.
“In the Beit Hamikdash [the Holy Temple], the walls would expand to make room for all,” someone shares.
“That’s up to us tonight.”
Students are invited to “let go” of an intense week as we welcome Shabbat, an oasis of peace. We declare the psalmist’s words, “Lechu neranena, come let us sing,” and I’m aware this is the first time nearly all of my students have ever heard these words or tunes.
Adam and others share explanations and anecdotes, interspersed within the prayers, as the melodies of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach carry through the evening. Before long, nearly all are swept into dancing.
Later that night, a student approaches me and says, “That was better than the bar.”
A high mark of praise from any college student, she continues, “My father’s Catholic, my mother’s Jewish.
We went to temple occasionally growing up, but I’ve never experienced prayer like that before in my life.”
Others express similar sentiments that night and throughout Shabbat, eager to do more singing and learn about the ideas expressed in the prayers and words of Torah given that evening. The Moishe House hevre join us in a park near our hotel on Saturday night, this time with their instruments, as we sing havdala and reenter the week. Nearby hassidim and German tourists join in the singing and dancing.
Our trip continues. We visit Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl. In the Negev, we see the desert sky full of stars and breathe fresh air. Atop Masada, we celebrate the bat mitzva of six of our participants, as yeshiva boys from Bnei Brak pray their morning services nearby. On the bus, we discuss the country’s migrant strike, the divisive Chief Rabbinate and the recent peace talks with the Palestinian leadership. In Tel Aviv we celebrate, seeing the country’s thriving metropolis and learning at Bina, a secular yeshiva devoted to social justice.
In all of Israel, we encounter history, politics, passion and innovation. But in Jerusalem on that special Friday night, we rediscovered our souls. • Avram Mlotek poses with director of Jewish Student Life Sam Schachter and students from Hunter College Hillel. (Sam Schachter) Taglit students rediscover their souls in Jerusalem