Thanksgiving is a very important holiday for me, and my family and we celebrate it by incorporating both Jewish and American traditions. Our seudah is lavish with extended family joining us and I look forward to the holiday specific “simanim” foods served. (My mother, a veritable “First Lady of Poultry,” makes spectacular turkey that manages to be flavorful, with moist meat and super crisp skin.) There is lively conversation that ranges from Torah to politics, and bentching is sung, beginning with Shir Hamaalot. This is a day when our family gives thanks to Hashem for blessing us with the zechut to live in a nation where Jews can thrive and worship in safety and security. Moreover, we express our gratitude to the United States for standing shoulder to shoulder with Medinat Yisrael, and Jews all around the world.
Although I am 6,000 miles away from home, I remain a proud American. Now, when the Jewish people are experiencing tremendous hardship, and grieving incomprehensible losses, I felt that it was more important than ever to give thanks for the United States’ unwavering support of Israel. I organized a dinner with good friends at the aptly named Joy Grill House in Mamilla Mall. While turkey was, unfortunately, not on the menu, the spirit of appreciation and celebration was no less than it would have been in North Woodmere.
My (No) Turkey Day flowed seamlessly into Shabbat, and Yeshivat Hakotel’s annual Shabbaton in Alon Shvut. This is a special Shabbat when the Shana Aleph talmidim get to spend time with our dean of overseas students [and esteemed 5TJT columnist] Rav Reuven Taragin, and his family. The theme of the weekend was religious Zionism, which melds the settling, and defending, of the Medinah with rigorous Torah study and scrupulous religious observance.
In anticipation of this Shabbaton, I reached out to friends who are learning in Yeshivat Har Etzion, aka The Gush, (which is a five-minute walk from Rav Taragin’s house) weeks ago, to secure a bed. On Friday at noon, we left the Rova by bus. Soon, we arrived at Rav Taragin’s house to drop off provisions for Shabbat. This was followed by a tour of the Zomet Institute visitors center, located in a former bomb shelter. Machon Zomet, started by Rav Yisrael Rosen in 1977, is a world-renowned organization known for its inventions that allow for electrical appliances to be used on Shabbat and the chagim in halachically permissible manners. Our guide gave special attention to technologies that allow the IDF to adhere to the laws of Shabbat while protecting Am Yisrael. It was inspiring to see the lengths that observant soldiers are willing to go to keep Shabbat properly, even when all manner of heterim are available to them.
After the tour, we walked to The Gush and prepared for Shabbat. We davened at the “New Shul” in Alon Shvut and then walked to Rav Taragin’s house for dinner. Following the seudah, we had a tisch with Rav Taragin. After midnight, we walked back to The Gush together and spent time talking with friends who were learning at Yeshivat Har Etzion, before going to bed.
The next morning, following davening and a modest kiddush, we had the legendary Q&A session with Rav Taragin at his house. At this meeting, Rav Taragin regales each year’s Shana Aleph talmidim with an array of stories, including those about his travels to Russia when he was a college student and his tenure at Yeshivat Hakotel.
Following lunch on Shabbat afternoon, I had an unexpected reunion with camp friends I had not seen in many years. Since middle school, my brother Reuben and I have attended Yeshivas HaKayitz camp in Skokie, Illinois. Summers at Kayitz were among the most formative experiences of my childhood and I vividly recall my first year. It was the summer before sixth grade and I had never spent more than a night or two away from home, let alone a thousand miles away. Reuben and I went together, and we knew no one other than each other. I was nervous and more than a little homesick. However, I was enthusiastically greeted by my smiling and welcoming bunkmates. They helped me unpack and introduced me to the other campers. I acclimated quickly. Although we fell out of touch over the subsequent years, I remain grateful for the warmth and friendship they showed me. Now, headed to Minchah, I turned a corner and ran into two of these same bunkmates, Moshe Osgood and Yonatan Simkovich, who were spending their gap year learning in The Gush. We immediately recognized one another and embraced, falling into effortless conversation. It was wonderful to catch up with them.
After Shabbat ended, we said our goodbyes and boarded the bus back to Hakotel. Later that night, some friends and I went out for burgers. By the time Sunday morning arrived, Thanksgiving Day felt very far away. But my holiday was not over yet. My roommate and cousin, Netanel Aronoff, who is Israeli and not part of Hakotel’s overseas program, had gone home to Modi’in for Shabbat. When he returned to yeshiva on Sunday, he brought something very special to share: turkey leftovers. Now, my Thanksgiving was truly complete. Content, I walked to the bet midrash looking forward to the week ahead.
Josiah N. Gampel graduated from DRS Yeshiva High School and is now learning at Yeshivat Hakotel. Josiah was chosen to receive the 5TJT Student Journalism Award in 2023.