By Leah Zigmond
Often, at the beginning of a lengthy experience, something happens early on that later becomes the theme for the entire journey. In the moment, you don’t always realize the significance of the seemingly minor event. But with time, observation, and reflection we look back on our experiences through a certain lens and begin to notice themes that might be attributed to a particular collection of early moments.
Last spring, I traveled to Israel as a member of the inaugural cohort of Martin Pear Israel Fellows. This new, selective 18-month fellowship requires a substantial application process; chosen cohort members participate in monthly study sessions, a 10-day trip to Israel, and must complete a community-based project to bring Israel to their home JCC. It is named for a longtime JCC executive director who believed strongly that Jewish professionals should anchor their practice in a passionate commitment to Israel.
During the trip, there were so many potentially pivotal moments. With 18 JCC professionals, each from a different city and with relatively unique professional profiles, there likely were hundreds of moments that changed our thinking, shattered stereotypes or other pre-conceived notions, and generally opened our eyes to brand new ways to see the world.
For some of us, the trip might have been about hospitality, and maybe the moment that set the tone was when Andi Meiseles, director of the Martin Pear Fellowship, met the group—with dried fruits and nuts in hand, freshly purchased at the shuk—immediately upon our arrival in Israel, still disoriented and jet-lagged, but so excited to reunite with old friends whom we had met in person for the first time only two months earlier.
For some of us, the theme might have been the intersection between ancient and modern culture, that unique combination so apparent in Israel. In that case, the pivotal moments were likely piling up on our second day. Many of us traipsed nearly 20,000 steps that day through Tel Aviv and Yafo. First, we learned about the early settlers and their hard work in the orange groves, followed by free time to explore the Nachalat Binyamin Artist Market, after which we had a special tour focused on the LGBTQ+ movement in the city, and rounded out the day with a program about the successes and failures of the start-up nation culture that Israel is known for today. I feel like it took me 20,000 steps just to recount what we did that day!
As it turned out, between the incredible (and abundant) food, the sunsets, the beach walks, the desert treks, the ruins, the cityscapes, the stories of diversity, dreams realized, and communities marginalized, the theme of the trip for me was something very simple: rain.
On our first day in Israel, we traveled to Neot Kedumim, a large nature preserve and biblical botanical garden, about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Among the views of the Judaean hills, the smells of hyssop and sage, the sound of olive leaves crunching under our feet, and the feel of warm, dry air, our guide took us to sit by an ancient cistern.
We sat together in a shaded area built around the cistern, and we talked about rain. We mused about the importance of rain for our ancestors who were farmers and herders in the biblical land of Israel; we learned about the patterns of seasonal rain in Israel—both in biblical times and today; and we told stories about the place of rain in our Jewish culture and liturgy.
We talked about the Hebrew words for rain, and the fact that Hebrew has specific words for the first and last rains of the season. For most of us who grew up or live in climates where rain comes intermittently throughout all 12 months of the year, the idea of special words for rain that comes at certain times during the year was foreign. Even in Arizona where I reside, while the idea of a first rain is not so alien, our monsoon season tends to linger such that I’m not sure we can really tell when that last rain of the year has fallen until it has long passed.
We read a biblical passage together under that shade, focusing our attention on the cistern:
If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving your God and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill.”
We talked about changes we as Jews make over the course of the year to the Amidah, a group of prayers that many Jews recite three times a day. Starting in the fall, from the holiday of Shemini Atzeret (at the end of the week-long Sukkot festival) until Passover, we pray for rain: mashiv ha’ruach u’morid hagashem. And starting on the first day of Passover until Shemini Atzeret comes around again, we pray for dew instead: morid hatal.
Not only did this prayer get me thinking, but it also became the primary thought that penetrated and underlined every subsequent experience that I had on our incredible nine-day journey. I couldn’t stop asking myself: What would it look like to hope and work for something, but only at times when it was likely to occur?
Rain was (and continues to be) such an integral component of life—not only for Jews, of course, but for every living thing. If we’re going to pray for it, rather than just waiting to see when it will come, why not pray for rain all year long? Surely rain is a better, more efficient source of water for plants and animals than dew would be. But Judaism has within it this hidden gem of a lesson—a lesson about having reasonable expectations based on our current environments. For me the lesson is about slowing down; not wanting to be in a different place than where we are; accepting an outcome simply because we understand that it is the culmination of the events that preceded it. And then trying to do different things next time if we want a different outcome. It’s about understanding that there are some things we have control over and some things we don’t. The practice of changing our prayers over the course of the year keeps us humble; it keeps us aware of our surroundings and the seasons; and it keeps us mindful of our relationship to nature and to God.
A trip such as the one we took is an incredible gift. A gift I will continue to unwrap and think about for years to come. And throughout the year, each time I pray for rain or for dew, I will remember those olive leaves underfoot and the dry wind above, carrying the scents of hyssop and sage.
We encourage you to learn more about the Martin Pear Israel Fellowship and, if you’re a JCC professional, to apply for Cohort II of the fellowship through October 31. For information about other professional development opportunities within the JCC Movement, visit JCC Talent.
Leah Zigmond is the early childhood education director at Valley of the Sun JCC in Scottsdale, Arizona.