My Week in Cape Town, South Africa

Due to immigration restrictions, the easiest way for me to renew my visa was to leave the country. How unlucky am I? I decided the easiest and most worthwhile trip from here would be to spend a week in Cape Town, South Africa. I guess you could say it was my first solo trip, as short as it was, but it definitely won’t be my last. My trip to Cape Town opened this horrendously large Pandora’s Box that showed me how much more I want to travel, meet new people, experience new things, and see the world. There are many things travelers agree on, and I think the number one would be that traveling doesn’t cure wanderlust, it fuels it. You find yourself adding things to your bucket list, not crossing things off, and wondering when in your short life you will ever find time for all of it.

I was pretty terrified to be going off somewhere on my own, even if just for a week. I know that technically I came to Zimbabwe alone, but it felt completely different when I knew there were people waiting for me on the other side. I must have read every “How to Solo Travel” blog out there and obsessed over reviews of what to do on Trip Advisor. I figured if nothing else, I’d get some time to myself, time to explore another city. I was pleasantly surprised when my week turned out to be better than I could have ever imagined. Every day I was in Cape Town, I saw or experienced something amazing. Every day I was given a gift. I saw the prison where Nelson Mandela was kept for 18 years, guided by an ex-political prisoner. I ran after penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town. I saw the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean from the top of a mountain I climbed (twice) with a few of my hostel-mates. I went out to dinner with people from about 10 different countries, including Brazil, France, England, Namibia, Germany, Malaysia, Paraguay, Denmark, and Ireland and learned to say “cheers” in each language. I tasted the best coffee I’ve had since I arrived in Africa. I had some of the most eye-opening conversations with people I had only just met. I listened to opera with three random people from three other countries who coincidentally love opera just as much as I do (seriously, when does that ever happen?). I saw the city of Cape Town from 3500 feet in the air while paragliding. I chatted with locals and made friends with people from all over the world whom I will never forget (some of whom I already have plans to meet up with again during our future travels).

Of course, being that I am a “wandering Jew”, I did check out one of the local shuls which happened to be right around the corner from my hostel. It was different, to say the least, especially being that it was a Reform temple and not what I’m used to, but very interesting. The rabbi welcomed all the visitors (there were quite a few) and introduced me as the “visitor from Zimbabwe”. That was definitely a new one for me, but reinforced my feeling that I have established a home here in Harare. I felt similarly in this service as I had when I attended Kabbalat Shabbat at the Ashkenazi shul in Harare. There’s a warmth and comfort that we feel as Jews when we hear the tunes we grew up singing, the words we can recite by heart. I know I’m lucky knowing this. Sometimes I think we take for granted the familiarity of niggunim and the knowledge of weekly t’fillot, which some Jews around the world do not have. But here I was, in Cape Town, South Africa, singing along with other Jews from about four different continents, and it was beautiful.

There was something so special about ending an incredible week away by coming back to Zimbabwe, a country that doesn’t seem so foreign anymore, with hugs from people who are becoming my mishpacha. I am so thankful for the experience I had last week and for the beautiful people I met.

I was once complaining to someone that after so many experiences I have had with people all over the world, sometimes it doesn’t seem worth it if in the end I just have to say good bye. She told me to think of it as a safety net. That the people you connect with are here for you, no matter where they are in the world, and the more people from different places you meet along the way, the wider your safety net becomes. I’m so thankful that this trip widened my safety net. 

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A few pictures I collected from others (most of my pictures were on the phone I lost while I was in Cape Town)

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Paragliding high up in the sky, looking down on beautiful Cape Town. This is my happy place (sorry, Mom and Dad).

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Made it to the top of Lion’s Head with a few of my hostel-mates

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The first time we went up Lion’s Head, there were so many clouds above and below, it felt like we were in the sky!

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That’s a 2,195′ drop down totally covered in thick, white clouds

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Table Mountain with the “table cloth”

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Penguins at Boulders Beach

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Coffee bean dispenser in Truth – the coolest coffee place I’ve ever been

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Sunset from Lion’s Head

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Remembering Yitzhak Rabin

On Tuesdays, I teach liturgy and Torah trope. I decided today to take some of our lesson time to discuss today being the 19th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. I think it is important that even all the way in Zimbabwe, we discuss what is on the minds of the Jews all around the world. I believe learning about more recent events is just as significant as learning about the ancient and rabbinical practices we’ve been studying.

On November 4, 1995, I was three. I don’t recall the news of the assassination in the slightest, but we learned about it in school every year for as long as I can remember, always associating the song Shir LaShalom with this tragic event. However, retelling it today was a totally new and emotional experience for me.

I showed an online video of Yitzhak Rabin’s final speech for the class with English subtitles. The Hebrew is not so easy to understand for students who have only been learning for one year, but the word that Rabin repeated over and over that everyone understood, was shalom, the Hebrew word for peace. I then played Shir LaShalom for the class, and showed them a picture of Rabin’s blood-stained lyrics sheet that was found in his breast pocket – words that plead for people to strive for peace, pierced with a bullet. While my students felt the shock of seeing this picture for the first time and the sadness of hearing this horrific story, I felt as though I was experiencing these feelings with them. I did not expect speaking about this day that was not at all new to me to be so emotionally difficult.

Last week, during our Israeli history lesson, I taught the class about Jewish sectarianism during the Second Temple period. We discussed the concept of sinat chinam (senseless hatred) and Jews pitted against Jews. I explained that this wasn’t just a problem back in ancient times, but an issue still relevant today. As we were remembering Rabin, the biggest shock for the students was that he was killed not by someone from one of the many nations where peace seems elusive, but by another Jew. And as I see the shock on their faces, I surprise myself hearing it come out of my own mouth. Again, I knew it was coming – I’ve known it almost all my life. But somehow breaking the news to others felt almost as hard for me as it was for them to hear it.

Ellen DeGeneres ends each of her shows by saying, ‘Be kind to one another.” I ended my lesson in a similar way. There are so many ways to practice Judaism, and I wanted to make it clear that what they are learning here is not the only way. Although we may decide which movement of Judaism is best for each of us, the most important thing is to be open to other ways of practicing Judaism, other ways of praying, and other ways of observing. At the end of the day, we are all Jews, we are all brothers and sisters. כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה

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Making Major Progress

I cannot believe it has been almost a month since I got here, and at the same time, considering how much has been accomplished already, I cannot believe it has only been a month. I’d like to say the past two weeks have been pretty normal, but is there really anything “normal” about living in a city in Zimbabwe, with the opportunity to teach a community about their roots? I’ll be honest – it’s pretty cool.

Let me first clear up some of the misconceptions of how I am living right now. I am not living in a hut. I am living in a house with a real bed and a real bathroom. Yes, Harare has power cuts fairly often (just about every day for anywhere between five to twelve hours) and water cuts every weekend. But once you figure out the best time to shower, and you remember where you left your flashlights so you can feel for them in the dark, it isn’t such a big problem. There are (somewhat) paved roads. There isn’t much in the way of sidewalks, but I didn’t see sidewalks half the time I was in Europe either. We do have a garden here, which is a huge plus, but there is also a supermarket just 20 minutes away where you can buy most of the things you’d be able to buy at your local ShopRite. And although I am really missing the colors of New Jersey in autumn right now, the colors of spring in Harare are a pretty great replacement. In a couple of months I will be going to the country for a few days, which I am told isn’t as developed, but for now, I am in the city, living very comfortably.

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Westgate – The shopping center near me

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A small glimpse of what spring looks like here in Harare

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Now that we’re into more of a routine here, there aren’t as many opportunities to write, but I will try to keep the blog as updated as possible. Here is what we have been up to thus far:

Not only can many of the students read Hebrew as if they have been doing it for years, they are beginning to understand some of what they are reading as well. We are translating full sentences of traditional Hebrew in t’fillot and conversing completely in simple Hebrew. The students are beginning to pick out words in psalms and songs that we are learning that they know and understand.

Until recently, the Shabbat morning service was similar to most Shabbat services around the world, but much of the service was either read through in English or in Hebrew, along with selections sung in Shona. We are now replacing the straight reading and actually putting t’fillot together with traditional nusach. In just three weeks, the service has already transformed – but as it is an ongoing process, I can see a lot more progress being made in the next four months.

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The best part of teaching music – I can teach my favorite songs.

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I am also teaching Torah Trope (how to chant from the Torah). Some of the students have a bit of background in this already, but we are starting completely from the beginning. So far, I have taught some of the most common trope phrases and learning to chant (instead of read) the second and third paragraphs of the Sh’ma. My goal is to have a full Torah reading here in two months with as many participants as possible.

We are also discussing all of the holy days (holidays, Rosh Chodesh, fast days, Shabbat, etc.), the Parshiot, and Israeli history. Because of the timing of my arrival (right after the high holidays and just as we were restarting the Torah), we were really able to start everything from the very beginning. Most of the students have a basic understanding of these subjects. Now, we are going into much further detail. Part of being a Jew is actually feeling Jewish. This isn’t something that is taught, it just that happens. So we are not only discussing Shabbat, but what Shabbat means to us, how we feel every week when Shabbat comes around. We are not only discussing the Parsha or Israeli history as events that occurred, but as the stories of our ancestors, our people. 

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Weekly Torah study

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To me, Judaism is so much more than simply knowing how to chant t’fillot or study Torah. It is the smell of challah that fills the air on Friday afternoon. It is the sound of everyone singing “Al Kol Ele from outside your room. It is the excitement you feel when you understand the story of Noach in a different way because of a d’var given on Shabbat. Here, by delving deeper, the students are gaining skills and knowledge, but also that inner connection to the rest of the Jewish world that cannot be explained in a classroom.

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Teaching Brenda to make a traditional four-strand braid with her Challot

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The finished product!

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In other news…

We have been working hard to get the word out about the Harare Lemba Synagogue, starting with our Facebook page – feel free to check it out here.

I got to help with gardening again. Today we planted different types of flowers in the front of the house.

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(Of course Shlomo helped too!)

I have found that Harare sunsets really do live up to the hype.

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One of my TRYers sent me a very sweet going away gift that included a deck of cards with a quote on each card (I shared with some of them that I collect inspirational quotes). I really loved today’s quote of the day:

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First Week of Class

I always wanted to be a “free-spirit”, but hard as I try, I will never be one of those people who can run from place to place having no idea what is coming next. I laugh when people tell me they think I’m “easy-going”. The truth is, I’m flexible, even easily-adjusted to new places, and I like adventure, but it must be a very carefully planned adventure (even if that plan may change, I need to have something). I start to feel pretty uneasy when I don’t have a schedule. For this reason, I became much more comfortable here this week when classes started and I was able to get into the groove of a routine.

My first week of teaching was pretty wonderful. I am teaching seven subjects: Hebrew, Jewish holidays, liturgy, Torah trope, Hebrew music, Israeli history, and Parashat Hashavu’ah (the weekly Torah portion). I teach each of these subjects once a week, except for Hebrew which is twice a week. Each of my classes can be anywhere between five and twelve students, usually an average of about seven or eight, mostly between the ages of 20-35. Sometimes fewer people come because of the distance from their homes or the fact that they must work during the day.

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My “first day of school selfie”

The classes have been so enjoyable to teach because each class, no matter how small, contains students who are so passionate and hungry for knowledge. It’s amazing how well many of them read Hebrew after only a year of learning. I still trip over words when I’m reading Biblical Hebrew with which I’m not familiar. They pick up tunes and t’fillot extremely quickly, which I could never manage to do so well – just ask my sister who had to sit in the car with me for two hours as I forced her to listen to me practice leading Kabbalat Shabbat for her wedding weekend over and over again.

Each class brings new questions and new insights. I think it’s really wonderful that I can start Parashat Hashavu’ah with Breyshit and actually start from the very beginning (there’s an ear worm for you). Anyone who attends services on a regular basis, went to a religious school or a Jewish day school, as I did until eighth grade, learned the story of Adam and Eve countless times. Back in my community theater days, I was even in a show that told the story of Adam and Eve. (Although most of what I remember from that show was arguing with the choreographer about holding Isaac Buchoff’s hand. He had cooties. I was nine.) So you could say I knew the story pretty well. But reading it with a new group of people that had a new perspective, I looked at this story in a way I hadn’t before. Things were translated differently for me and things stood out that I had never noticed before. I am really looking forward to learning more and opening my eyes to new ways of reading stories about which I thought I already knew so much. (Side note: Two musical theater references in one paragraph, my parents must be so proud!)

My favorite class to teach so far has been music. I am introducing a mix of both traditional Jewish songs and Hebrew songs that are a bit more modern. I’m also teaching a few Israeli dances. I talked about the celebration of Simchat Torah this week and the importance of rejoicing and being happy. We danced and sang and laughed. And again, they caught on so quickly. Hearing them sing the song or dance the moves that I just taught them gave me such a fulfilling feeling. Listening to them sing Ma Gadlu, a song that I also taught to my TRYers about six months ago made me feel elated, just as I felt when I heard all of the TRY kids singing it together then.

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After the music lesson this week, a few people stayed back to sing just for fun. Hamlet, a Lemba musician, and his friend, Akim, brought out their guitar and mbira and they played a few songs for us in Hebrew and in Shona. Then, they figured out how to play Od Yavo Shalom, and we all sang along. In this mix of instruments and voices and harmonies, I got that feeling – that euphoric feeling you get when nothing else in the world could make you happier. Here is a song about bringing peace, which so many Jews sing together in times of happiness, and here we were, in a synagogue in Harare, all of these people having just learned this song, barely knowing any songs in Hebrew before a year or two ago, singing it together as well.

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“Let’s make it look like we’re actually playing”

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The inside of the mbira

Here are few short clips I took while we were singing. Listen carefully, maybe you’ll recognize some of the songs:

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On Friday evening, Modreck and I went to the local Ashkenazi shul to check it out. While we were on the way there, Allon, a member of the Jewish community, was describing the shul to us. I felt like a kid on the way to their own birthday party. I had butterflies in my stomach. I was so excited not just to see the shul, but to participate in a Kabbalat Shabbat service, my favorite service by far, somewhere totally new, and to meet even more Jews here. Well, I was not disappointed. The tunes were the ones I grew up with, being that these people mostly came from Eastern Europe. Suddenly, I was four again. I was with my sister and my dad, and I could hear Nat Taubenfeld singing L’cha Dodi, loudly, trying to speed everyone up as to not keep everyone from their Shabbat Dinners. The people there were so welcoming to me. I was given endless invitations to come to services again, join them for a Shabbat dinner sometime, or just reach out if I ever need anything while I am here. What a way it was to start Shabbat. The rest of Shabbat, I held onto this feeling of spirituality that Kabbalat Shabbat often gives me, making this beautiful day back in the Harare Lemba Synagogue even more meaningful.

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Other fun things that happened this week:

I picked up two words in Shona (which isn’t a lot considering I’ve already been here almost two weeks): hot (kupisa) and thank you (maitabas – and I’m not even sure if I’m spelling that one right). I’ll keep working on it.

I figured out how to get to the shopping center on my own. It’s about 4/5 of a mile away, and a total straight shot, but with my sense of direction, this was definitely a feat.

I also got a chance to work a little bit in the garden behind our house on Wednesday morning. It’s HUGE. We planted kale and sweet cabbage.

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Modreck and me in the garden

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The garden behind our house (it’s even bigger than it looks!)

I experienced my first Zim thunder storm, which I thought was very fitting, considering it was Thursday afternoon and still Sh’mini Atzeret, the holiday when we pray for rain.

And in other news, my Malarone finally started kicking in, so I’ve started having some of the wildest dreams. It’s been pretty fun, considering most of my dreams so far consisted of me having close friendships with celebrities. This probably stems from my delusions that I will, in fact, someday be friends with all of these famous people without actually being famous myself.

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Sukkot & First Shabbat

Sukkot

A couple days before I left for this trip, I went to the Lubavitch store to pick up a few Judaica items to bring with me. While I was waiting to be rung up, someone called the store and I heard the man at the register say, “One second, I’ll transfer you to the Lulav and Etrog Department”. A minute later, someone else called. He picked up the phone, and after a moment said, “One second, I’ll transfer you to the Sukkah Department”. Then he looked at me, winked, and said, “Really, it’s just one guy sitting in our basement taking calls for different departments all year. While I found this quite amusing, this story came to mind a few days ago as we were trying to figure out how to build the first sukkah at the Harare Lemba Synagogue (HLS). Figuring out how the sukkah was going to be built was a whole adventure in and of itself. There is no “Sukkah Department” you can call here, in Harare. You make the best of what you have. So after a few hours of planning and building, our sukkah was done, with just a little bit of time before chag began.

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Brenda and Modreck figuring out how to hold up the s’chach

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George and Modreck  laying the s’chach on top

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Even Shlomo wanted to help!

I will continue to mention how much we take for granted in the rest of the world when it comes to knowing about Judaism. HLS has no lu’ach, and therefore the people here did not even know when Sukkot was until I arrived the day before the holiday began. They only started learning about the holiday about 2 months ago, so much of what they knew was very basic. Regardless, the enthusiasm they express every time there is something new to learn is amazing. They never seem to get frustrated, they ask so many wonderful questions, and they continue to push themselves to follow along and to learn.

I taught Brenda, Modreck’s wife about eiruv tavshilin and then we set the table out in the sukkah. As I looked at it, I thought about the sukkah at my parents’ house in West Caldwell, how colorful it always is and always so bright with many lights. We had one small lightbulb outside the sukkah here. Even that small light went out halfway through dinner when the power went out, so we were eating by candlelight. I thought about how our sukkah at home is always filled with as many guests as we can fit. Here, no one lives close enough to one another to come at night. I even thought about the candles my mom always puts out to keep the bugs away. Here, we have a heavy-duty spray in case we see a mosquito because there is always a chance it is carrying malaria. I never thought of all of those lights and decorations at home as a luxury, and I missed having them here. But I looked up at this beautiful starry sky, with barely any light pollution besides this enormous full moon, and I could not be more content with where I was. That meal was one of the most special Sukkot meals I ever had, with people who took me in with wide-open arms.

The next day, I was greeted in the morning with many “boker tov”s and smiles. I will never underestimate the comfort of being with other Jews, no matter who or where they are. I can wake up feeling so far from home and so overwhelmed, but if I start every morning with a “boker tov” and end every evening with a “lilah tov”, and hear words throughout the day like “balagan” and songs like David Melech Yisrael (sung by a 2-year-old), that alone can get me through the day.

I spent most of the day (as most Jews do on yuntif) just relaxing. I showed everyone some pictures from home and told them a bit about my family. Then, George took me for a walk to show me how to get to “town”. You can tell this local shopping center, which is about a 20 minute walk away from the house, used to be very beautiful and thriving, but because of the economy, many of the stores are closed and empty. Still, it’s nice to know there is a place to get the things I may need nearby. The rest of chag was more of the same: relaxing, spending time with the family, and going over some of the t’fillot in the service.

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Modreck and Shlomo with their first sukkah

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Shlomo and Aviv with their first “lulav and etrog”

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George and me in the Sukkah

Shabbat

Friday night, we had a wonderful Shabbat dinner. Brenda made me an incredible VEGAN challah, which was so thoughtful. At dinner, I shared some of our family’s traditions like getting blessed over Skype every week when we aren’t at home and that in our family we don’t just do Eishet Chayil, we also do Ashrey Ish for the wife to say to the husband (Modreck was very excited about this).

Saturday, there were Shabbat services in the synagogue. They were very interesting for me. There were about 15-20 people there. Much of the service was in English, some in Hebrew, and there were some parts in Shona, which were really beautiful. I’m looking forward to working with them on some of the melodies for the t’fillot they know in Hebrew, and to teach them to sing in Hebrew some of what they say in English now. As for the Shona, I think it’s really nice that they have that in their service and I wouldn’t want that to change.

After services, we all enjoyed lunch together. It gave me more of an opportunity to meet some of the other people in the Lemba community whom I will be teaching for the next five months. At the end of Shabbat, we did Havdalah, which has become one of my favorite rituals recently since my parents and I started doing it every week at home again. We ate in the sukkah afterwards, and not having had electricity all day, we ate by candlelight once again. I tried sadza for the first time, which is the staple food here, usually made from maize flower and water. With that and the vegetables and fruit from Modreck’s garden being the main things we eat (I just found out that in about a month or two, he’ll start getting mangos and avocados on the trees outside!), I think I’ll do alright here.

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The Journey

Zimbabwe: My 9th country. 11th if you count layovers, and 12th if you count the time our Ramah Seminar group accidentally crossed the Lebanese border to do mincha (or so we were told). It doesn’t seem like much, but 6 of those 9 countries were visited in the past 8 months. I have spent more of my time at home in the past year and half getting ready for trips than doing anything else. I guess I could blame it on post-grad wanderlust, or the resistance to settling down and getting a “real job”,  but regardless of what it is, when I look at the past year and a half since I graduated, I have been in the exact place that I believe I was supposed to be every step of the way. So here I am, in Harare Zimbabwe, where I am supposed to be. (At least that’s what I am telling myself).

Preparations

I found out about this position last year when I was staffing TRY, a high school program in Israel. A good friend of the director of TRY, Jack Zeller, was looking for “a young Jewish person to do cool things” and although I did not know what that entailed, I was interested. The time it took from hearing the initial “would you be interested in going to Zimbabwe” (followed by me having to look up where Zimbabwe was on a map) to the “yes, I’m 100% in” was less than 3 weeks. Everything happened incredibly fast and I was extremely excited. I learned more about Kulanu, the organization with which I’d be working, and learned more about the Lemba community, the community of Jewish people in Zimbabwe. I had a wonderful support system of the most wonderful high schoolers and co-staff on TRY, friends who didn’t really understand what I’d be doing but were rooting for me nonetheless, and parents who didn’t say, “That’s hilarious, you’re not going. Go get a real job”, and that’s really all I could ask for.

The more I told people about my trip and the more I prepared, the more excited I became and the more terrified I became. I was slammed with countless questions about living in a developing country, being away from home for so long, the legitimacy of this group of people, and of course, whether or not I was scared I’d get Ebola. The more people asked, the more I panicked about what I was getting myself into. But then there were the people who reminded me how great this would be and helped me prepare for my trip, not to mention those 51 TRY kids who inspire me every day to be better, and I knew I had to go.

The trip to Harare

After a month and a half of preparations, packing, and meeting with Mickey and Mordy Feinberg who had just returned from working with this community in Harare, I was taken to the airport with over 150 pounds of luggage (about 100 pounds of that was books and supplies for the Lemba community). I had a very difficult goodbye with my parents, who have been more supportive than I could ever imagine, flew through security (for the first time in my life), and got on a 15 hour flight to Johannesburg. I sat next to a very kind South African man. We talked about all the places I had to visit while on this side of the world, about Harare and the economy in Zimbabwe, and about his children who had left South Africa to live in New Jersey.

Then, after a six hour layover in O.R. Tambo Airport, I had a two hour flight to Harare. Modreck, the head of the Lemba community, was waiting for me at the airport. He welcomed me with a hug and immediately helped me with my luggage. We got into a cab, drove for about 40 minutes with the most beautiful sunset as our backdrop, stopped at a grocery store (where I found that Zimbabwe does indeed have soy milk!) and went to his home. I was greeted with more hugs from the rest of the family. They are all so lovely. There was no power in the house when I got there, so I unpacked by candlelight. Although it was a first, it made the whole thing a little bit more exciting, and already, I am so humbled by how lucky we are in the states. After unpacking, I spent a little time with Modreck, George, who also lives in the house, and Modreck’s two little boys, Shlomo and Aviv. They are two and five, respectively, and two of the cutest, sweetest children I have ever met. Shlomo runs around, singing Dayenu, yelling “DA DA” until someone finally responds “yenu”. I asked, and it turns out he has in fact been singing that song since last April.

A few hours later, after the power went back on, we enjoyed dinner all together, followed by a shortened Birkat Hamazon. Hopefully by the end of my time here, we will be doing the entire thing. We all sat together for a little while after that. I was exhausted from the trip, so I turned in pretty early.

Unfortunately, the first week of any trip for me has always been hard, and that hasn’t gotten any easier over the years. So although I wouldn’t say I am any more comfortable with the unfamiliarity and the homesickness, I am happy. I know I will learn so much these next few months, and I am really looking forward to seeing what will come.

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150 pounds of luggage, not including my carry on. (Mostly books and supplies to bring to the Lemba)

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