By Shmuel Katz
Leap years are awesome. A leap year affects the chagim significantly, especially now that we no longer change the clock here in the week before Yom Kippur. And I am not talking about the earlier ending time of the Yom Kippur fast.
Move forward a few days to Sukkot. The late-in-the-calendar start of the chag means that instead of us baking in our sukkot and kvetching about how hot we are (which is so significantly different from my childhood in Chicago, where we huddled some years in the sukkah in our parkas—but that is an article in itself), we get to enjoy ourselves, comfortably. Including all the tourists.
This means that last Pesach came late (and we had a very late start to the Seder) and the heat we miss on Sukkot was evident on Shavuot. However, I personally would be happy to make that trade every year. Especially since we only have one Seder and one day of Shavuot—but seven days of living in the sukkah.
Another benefit that we enjoyed this year is the terrific opening month in the yeshiva. Most of the American programs begin their year in the last week of August. With the early-in-the-calendar chagim last year, our Elul session of learning was pretty short (about a week-and-a-half before Rosh Hashanah) and we seemed to be on Sukkot break almost as soon as the year started.
This year, we had a full month from their arrival to Rosh Hashanah. While everything balances itself out by the end of the year, there is no question that having the extra time at the start of the year was a benefit not just for us, but for all the programs that follow a similar calendar.
The extra time is also a benefit to our students. Being more familiar with the country and having had a chance to settle in a bit allows them to make informed plans for the break. It also gave us a time to have some nice tiyulim with them without it detracting from their learning.
In addition to a terrific two-day tiyul to the North (including rappelling into water and bungee-jumping off a bridge), we had a wonderful Aseret Yemei Teshuvah chesed activity with Project Leket. We took an afternoon off this week to go just outside Rechovot and pick eggplants to be distributed to needy families (we picked a ton-and-a-half of eggplants).
With this year being Shemittah, the chesed activity was also an educational opportunity as well. We discussed issues regarding kedushat shevi’it in these vegetables and how we needed to treat them as we picked and stored them. It was a truly outstanding day and what I hope was a prelude to an outstanding year.
This is our second Shemittah cycle since aliyah. Like almost everything else here in Israel, Shemittah has become politicized. Between those who hold of heter mechirah, those who avoid the whole issue of Israeli produce altogether, and those who, like the Katzes, are participating in the Otzar HaAretz program and enjoying, halachically, produce that has the special kedushah of the Shemittah year.
There is no question that the rules are complex and using this produce requires additional levels of care and vigilance to do everything properly. Yet, in our opinion, religious observance includes not shying away from difficult issues. Furthermore, how could we possibly miss an opportunity to teach such a valuable lesson to our kids (and our students)?
With another chag at our doorstep, I will again wish you all a tremendous chag. Our family of kohanim will be thrilled to help you bring your korbanot as we all celebrate one day of chag in the rebuilt Beit HaMikdash. If we have somehow failed to achieve the geulah, I offer our wishes that you enjoy your chag together with your families and look forward to that time when we all celebrate together as one nation in our home.
Shmuel Katz is the executive director of Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah (www.migdalhatorah.org), a new gap-year yeshiva. Shmuel, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July of 2006. Before making aliyah, he was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.