I was teaching abroad when the pandemic struck. Here’s why I chose to stay in Israel.

Ziva Shapiro

BAT YAM, Israel (JTA) — I did not expect my yearlong teaching fellowship in Israel to coincide with a once-in-a-century global pandemic. But when the choice to leave and go back home to New Jersey came, I was confident in my decision to stay.

I arrived in this Tel Aviv-area city in August as part of the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows program with a goal of immersing myself in my new community and making connections with my students. By the time the pandemic arrived, I had found myself quickly rooted in Bat Yam — waking up to the constant rain of beeping horns, the patches of parks nestled between streets, the bakery on the corner with my favorite seeded bread — and I wasn’t ready to let my community go so suddenly. 

Being stuck in my apartment has only strengthened many of the communal bonds I felt. Elizabeth, an Israeli teacher I work with, still calls me every Friday before sundown to check in. Before the orders to stay at home, she already showed such warmth and care toward me and my co-teacher by inviting us over for meals and during the High Holidays. She would make sure I had a jacket if it was chilly outside and always offered us tea in the teachers’ lounge. Now she calls to make sure that my roommates and I have enough food and continues to offer a loving shoulder to lean on.

Every time I pass one of my neighbors on the stairwell, I receive a smile and often a question about whether we have everything we need. And my roommates and I have not forgotten how to have fun. We eat family-style meals, launch into impromptu dance parties and laugh whenever we can. Even with the heaviness in the air of knowing that everyone is struggling to cope with the pandemic in their own way, I have been inspired to see people band together. Along with my peers in the program, I feel deeply grateful for the opportunities to volunteer and support low-income families and at-risk community members during this crisis.

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In many ways, this lockdown has been an unexpected opportunity to reflect upon, celebrate and deepen my Jewish practice. Since the order to stay at home took effect, my friends and I have made a conscious effort to have Shabbat dinner every Friday night and do Havdalah every Saturday night. I’m no stranger to this — my father is a rabbi living in New Jersey, and the sounds and rhythms of Jewish living are like old friends I grew up with. Yet many of these practices fell by the wayside as I became a teenager, went to college and grew up. These days, weeks and months have been like a high school reunion — rediscovering great friends and, at the same time, discovering new things to love about them. As different as things are, it is comforting to know what stays the same.

On the eve of Yom Hashoah each year, Masa Israel Teaching Fellows in Bat Yam deliver flowers to local Holocaust survivors. This year, we wore masks and gloves. When we knocked on doors, we immediately stepped back at least 6 feet. 

While my friend and I were walking door to door, a middle-aged Israeli woman with short, curly red hair began talking to us in rapid-fire, almost angry-sounding Hebrew on the street. Startled, it took us a second to understand what she was telling us so passionately: We were carrying the flowers incorrectly, in a way that would make them wilt faster. We exchanged a laugh, changed our grips on the flowers until she approved, thanked her and continued delivering the flowers.  

The next morning, I stood silently at home as the siren blared and Israelis across the country reflected on our 6 million brothers and sisters who perished in the Holocaust. The children we’d taught in Bat Yam, their parents, their cousins, our fellow teachers, our friends and that woman who wanted to make sure that survivors’ flowers would last a little longer all sat silently in their homes, too.

It is difficult to be in a country that is both familiar and unfamiliar. I feel acutely the absence of my family and my home. There are some people in my program that I haven’t seen for more than a month. There are times when it is very lonely. There are moments when I feel misunderstood. But I try to step back and remind myself that we are all just doing the best we can.

It might be a cliche, but home isn’t just a place — it’s a feeling. It’s the small and big and medium-sized things that make you feel welcomed, loved and seen. People around the world were asked to stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic. That’s why I stayed in Bat Yam. 

is a 2019-2020 Masa Israel Teaching Fellow.

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