The Year In Israel
By Max Fruchter
As I descended the Egged Bus 486 on Monday morning, erev Pesach, I inhaled the salty air and took pride in the fact that I was to spend the next eight days volunteering as a shul gabbai at the luxurious Daniel Hotel aside the Yam HaMelach, or Dead Sea. My initial impression of the apparently endless strip of hotels along the beach brought to mind similar sights in Miami; the palm trees, beautiful oceanic views, and blissful warm weather drew all too identical comparisons between the two. One characteristic of the Dead Sea, which certainly does not manifest itself in Miami, however, is the aura of fellow Jews surrounding you in every direction. Israelis and Americans alike walked the streets that day wishing everyone a “Pesach sameach” and a “Chag Aviv sameach.” Unlike the perpetual hustle and bustle that distinguishes energetic cities such as Miami, the Yam HaMelach, along with many other places throughout Israel, saw the slow but steady end to cars on the road, open stores, and blasting music along the beach as everyone gathered themselves and their families in preparation for the first Seder.
Upon entering the Daniel, three of my friends and I were given a tour of the hotel while simultaneously discussing with the program director, our “tour guide,” the specifications our responsibilities entailed. Before the meeting/tour fully ended, my friends and I met the rabbi (also the scholar-in-residence) who led the way to the shul prepared to hold davening each day. Just outside the doors of the hotel stood a magnificent white tent filled with plush seats and lined with aesthetic black carpeting. Over the loud roars of the air conditioner, we discussed our roles as gabbaim for each minyan as well as the days on which we would be leining and giving daf yomi shiur. The meeting was brief, as we only recapped everything that was thoroughly deliberated over weeks before, and soon my friends and I made our way to the sixth floor to settle into our rooms.
As the hour rapidly neared 7:00 p.m., my friend and I headed toward the shul in order to arrive fifteen minutes early and confirm that everything was in order. We noted the fully functioning air conditioning, the plethora of seats, and the copies of Torah Tidbits and OU Pesach Newsletters available. With all in order, we took our seats and watched as over the course of fifteen minutes hundreds of people entered the tent. A congregation such as this, with roots in America, Israel, Europe, and even South Africa, allowed for every form of dress; men felt comfortable in suits and hats, shirts and ties, or short sleeve button-downs with khakis and sandals. Notwithstanding this evident diversity in everyone’s appearance, no one felt uncomfortable or out of place as was seen by the congeniality of men introducing themselves to one another and forming new friendships.
Following davening, my three friends and I made our way past the large crowd of guests towards the lower-level dining room in which the communal Seder was to be held. The rabbi/scholar-in-residence began the communal Seder with an enlightening introduction to help set the appropriate tone for the evening. He explained that as guests in a five star hotel, it is quite difficult for us to place ourselves in the mentality of slaves, yet despite this fortunate state of ours, the poverty and destitution present throughout most of the world must be noted; millions suffer from hunger and poverty, wondering each day if they will live to see the next. With his concluding words of insight we began the Seder. Over the course of the night, all sixty of us in the room took turns reading different excerpts of the Haggadah, be it in Hebrew or English. I was privileged, along with several others, to even share a few divrei Torah with the rest of the guests present. If the Seder was any indication of how the following day would be, and it was, my friends and I had good reason to anticipate with excitement the first day of Pesach.
That morning my friend and I, the two gabbaim, arrived at shul thirty minutes early to make sure everything was set up. We agreed, before davening, that we would give out the aliyot, first and foremost, to the elderly members of the shul. Only after the enormous influx of men came pouring in was I able to truly appreciate the unique opportunity I was given; speaking with the different guests, all with separate stories and backgrounds, I learned firsthand how much thought and effort must go into handing out each aliyah or distributing the various portions of chazzanut. Never did I have the proper respect or appreciation for the gabbaim in shul who, each week, take the responsibility upon themselves to ensure that the minyan runs smoothly in every way from start to finish.
The rest of the day went as one would imagine—a full kiddush/breakfast, lunch, sweet hour (desserts served outside), and dinner, with most guests reading or resting along the way. However, once nightfall came, my friends and I soon found out that we were part of a tight-knit group of only ten guests keeping a second day of chag. As all the other guests heard Havdalah and went to get ready for the show that evening, we sat down with a Belgian family to our left and an American to our right, and began our second Seder.
I don’t know if I can count the number of times I was asked, “How strange does it feel to be keeping a second day?” Children and parents alike watched in amazement as my friends and I made our way to and from shul in yom tov clothing while the rest of the hotel spent the day at the beach, taking family hikes, and enjoying the unrestricted use of electronic devices.
The constant ringing cell phones, blasting music, and discussions of chol ha’moed plans allowed for an understandable amount of relief for us when the second day ended and we were able to join the majority “one-dayers” in celebrating chol ha’moed. In addition to running each minyan and acting as madrichim for the different age groups throughout the day, we were allotted a generous amount of free time in which we, like most guests, swam, went to the beach, biked, or just relaxed.
The following day I bubbled with excitement at the thought of teaching my very own shiur. Hours of preparation built up a sense of confidence in my capability to give the daf yomi shiur that day and allowed me to share the Gemara with excitement and enthusiasm as opposed to anxiety and haste. At the end of the shiur I enjoyed the overwhelming sense of accomplishment I’m sure anyone would have felt, yet kept in mind my next task and directed my efforts toward the next day’s leining.
As chol ha’moed passed and yom tov quickly came, I realized how fast the days had come and gone. The food, entertainment, and days of swimming all settled into one blurred memory when I look back on it. Yet what I distinctly recall, each and every day, was meeting the different guests and learning each of their stories. The fascinating people I met and the invaluable experience of volunteering as gabbai in the shul and madrich for the children afforded me the chance to experience Pesach in a way I never had before. Although returning home for Pesach break will always be a popular choice amongst many yeshiva kids, one can never go wrong with experiencing Pesach in the most holy place in the world. All the more so for me, and other students in my yeshiva, who leave for Poland this motzaei Shabbos from the land in which all Jews hope to live, as we recite each year “l’Shanah haBa’ah b’Yerushalayim.” v
Max Fruchter, a recent graduate of DRS Yeshiva High School in the Five Towns, is now attending yeshiva in Jerusalem.