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Two Simple Words

By Erica Barish, Assistant Director

There is a popular saying these days, “home is where the WiFi connects automatically.” For me, home is determined by a different kind of connection. Specifically, there is a connection – a feeling – that I have when I am in Israel. It is a feeling of happiness that I get every time I come to such a wonderful and magical place. Connection happens in many ways, but for me, it was first recognized thanks to two simple words:

Challah at Mahane Yehuda Market

The first time I felt it, I was a participant on NFTY in Israel standing in the middle of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market on a Friday afternoon waiting in line for what ended up being possibly the best challah I’ve ever had. As it was my first time in Israel, I was still trying to understand the difference between the bills and the coins that were shoved in the front zipper of my backpack. I was overly distracted by everything going around me. At the time, I didn’t understand any Hebrew beyond the prayers I learned for my bat mitzvah and the songs I sang at Camp Harlam every summer. Due to this, I was really good at just ignoring what others were saying. However, this time, there were two words that caught my attention.

Two simple words that I kept hearing all around me.

Two words that every single person walking by me kept saying.

Shabbat shalom.

It was the first time I had ever heard anyone say these words out of a synagogue setting. Everyone was saying it, and everyone was smiling. I didn’t understand. It seemed so normal for everyone to say. As I realized what was happening, I fell into a daze of amazement and everything else faded away until I heard someone shout: “At rotzah?”

I didn’t say anything; I was still observing every single person walking by greeting each other with a simple “shabbat shalom!”

“Hello, at rotzah?” the man at the challah stand shouted a bit louder. I was flustered and quickly told the man that I don’t speak Hebrew. He replied in English with the cost of one challah. I handed him some coins and he thanked me with a simple, “shabbat shalom.” I replied with these two words as well.

Almost effortlessly, I found myself a part of this remarkable community – one in which strangers can easily connect to one another, and they connected to me as well. I found a new connection to the people, the land, and the culture. I found myself yearning for more and wanting to come back. It was a feeling I have never felt in any other place. Even though I have returned many times since and continued to find a sense of belonging in Israel, I can confidently say this feeling has only grown stronger with each “shabbat shalom.”

This connection has been pivotal in many decisions that I have made since – both personal and professional. Even after hearing the words “shabbat shalom” a thousand times or more, they continue to instill a sense of happiness and remind me that I am connected to Jews in Israel and around the world. Just two simple words continue to put a smile on my face every time I arrive to Israel.