The word nesiya means “journey” in Hebrew. This past summer, I went to Israel on a program with that same name, and the six weeks I spent there turned out to be the most transformative journey of my life.
I have attended Temple Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Northeast Seattle, since I was two years old. I have grown up celebrating holidays with our chavurah and going to lively, klezmer-filled Shabbat services. My Sundays and Tuesdays have been spent at religious school, where I have learned what it means to be a Reform Jew.
I have learned to value egalitarianism, to do tikkun olam, and to use teachings from the Torah as inspiration for how to act in the world. But I’ve always known that what differentiates Reform Judaism from other denominations is that, as a Reform Jew, I get to choose which Jewish practices are meaningful to me.
I love my Jewish community, but before this past summer it was all I’d ever known. Nesiya allowed me to experience a very different kind of Jewish community. It was a community made up of secular, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews, as well as those who choose not to affiliate with a denomination. We all had to learn how to live together, study text together, worship together, and, most importantly, to learn from each other.
On Nesiya, instead of standing out for being Jewish, like I do at my public high school, I stood out for how I was Jewish. This forced me to articulate my Judaism to the group as a whole, and help them understand the Reform movement. It also forced me to justify my beliefs, and explain why they are meaningful to me. I had to make clear that I do not see Reform Judaism as a watered-down version of Conservative Judaism, but as an essential and important way of practicing my religion.
On Nesiya, I learned to listen and try to understand others’ beliefs and practices instead of dismissing them. I learned why some girls on the program believe in the mechitzah, the separation between men and women in the synagogue. I learned why some participants want to become less religious, and why others want to become more so. I learned that other participants look at Torah very differently than I do, but that what they see in the text is just as valid as what I see. I learned why some participants keep Shabbat, and why some have chosen not to.
In order to learn, though, I had to listen. And in order to listen respectfully to those I disagreed with, I had to keep in mind their backgrounds, and how their own individual stories informed their perspectives on the world and on Judaism. Nesiya gave me an invaluable tool to help me do this.
During the last Shabbat on the program, at a field school in Ein Gedi, we gathered outside in the dark to sing together. The air was heavy and damp. The trees swayed slightly in the soft breeze. We sang a niggun we had learned on our first Shabbat. Everyone sang the chorus. Instead of verses, everyone hummed the melody, while one or two people improvised, singing their own melody over the steady humming of the group. That niggun represented the genius of Nesiya: It allowed Jewish teens to undergo an intense summer of self-discovery within the safety of a caring community.
Sitting there, as night fell, I felt an incredible sense of pride. I was still a Reform Jew, but I now had a more nuanced understanding of the many different ways to be Jewish. I was still an American, but I knew that I loved Israel and felt at home there.
I knew I would carry the humming and the individual voices with me long after Nesiya was over. But I also knew Nesiya could never really end, because when the program started, so did my own Jewish journey. I knew I would go home and try to make Shabbat as sacred as my last Shabbat in Israel. I knew I would go home and try to make my community at school as safe and as open as the community on Nesiya. And I knew I would go home and try to keep learning, to keep listening, and to keep being open to the evolution of my Judaism.