On the first Friday night of the trip, our group stood in a park on a hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. With my 41 new friends and I all gathered, our group leader asked us to share our favorite memories from the first week of USY Israel Pilgrimage. For some people, it was our visit to the Western Wall. For others, it was the archaeological dig. For me, it had been to our visit to the shuk, the open air market, that afternoon.
As we were talking, the siren that signifies the beginning of Shabbat sounded, and we all grew silent to listen. The wailing siren, paired with the utter silence of the city sent shivers down my spine. Once it was over, we began to pray, our voices harmonizing as we sang and danced together. And then the sun began to set over the Old City. As the light hit the Jerusalem stone, it glowed an almost magical golden color. It was just like the song we sing at every SWUSY convention back at home, “Jerusalem of Gold.” Here it was as I had always imagined it: the Old City of Jerusalem, with the most important sites in Judaism, all laid out in front of me, reflecting the setting sun. Israel is where the past and present of Judaism meet, and I was standing at the center of it all.
The next evening, our group gathered for Havdalah, the concluding service of Shabbat. We all stood in a circle, with our staff members standing in the middle. One of them held the container of spices, another the cup of wine, and another the lit Havdalah candle. The braided candle has two wicks, representing the the joining together of Shabbat and the rest of the week that occurs during this service. As we swayed together and sang the prayers, I watched the flame flicker and dance. When it was time, I lifted up my hands and felt its warmth. And then finally, we were silent. One of our staff members took the candle and ever so slowly lowered it into the wine, letting the flame last as long as possible.
Later that week, our group traveled to the Negev Desert, where we spent a night sleeping under the stars in the Ramon Crater. As part of the experience, we were allowed a few moments to walk into the desert alone at night to reflect in silence. When I turned off my flashlight, absolute darkness surrounded me, except for the light of the moon and the stars. Looking up at the millions of stars, completely alone for the first time in almost two weeks, I thought of the light of the Havdalah candle.
It occurred to me that the candle represents what I love most about being Jewish–the sense of community. Wherever I go around the world–Israel, Europe, even home–I know that I am connected to the Jews who live in that place. Even though I was thousands of miles away from my physical home that summer, I felt right at home in this other country. I could see the connections between my life at home and the world around me, like how a song I sing in America had come to life halfway around the world, overlooking the city of Jerusalem.
Just like the Havdalah candle is braided together to signify the joining of Shabbat and the rest of the week, I am braided together with other Jews. The light of our individual wicks joins together to form a single flame, burning strong no matter who or what tries to snuff us out. Though I sat in total solitude in a desert far from home, I knew that so long as we light the Havdalah candle each Saturday, I am never truly alone.