When Kim Herzog dips apples and challah in honey this Rosh Hashana, she says she will be reaching extra deep to get some sweetness, because after six months in Israel, she and the country need it more than ever.
"I want to begin this year with a sense of hope, that Israel can find sweetness in this year at a time that is a very bitter time," said the 23-year-old Pacific Palisades native who since February has been enrolled in the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) Institute for Graduate Studies, an Ulpan and Jewish/Israel studies program in this small town in the Negev desert.
Rabbi Aubrey Isaacs, the director of WUJS, looks forward to helping his students tap into "the moment of hope" that New Year's provides, a moment that "unites all Israelis and goes beyond the religious-secular divide."
He noted that celebrating the holidays in Israel provides a special opportunity for the close to 40 students at WUJS, who come primarily from the English-speaking Diaspora, to "feel part of the mainstream" and to enjoy living in a country where you don't have to take a day off to observe Rosh Hashana.
Jared Hochman, 23, from Tarzana, said he's especially excited about the national experience of the High Holidays in Israel, where "they take on a whole new meaning."
"In the states you have to put up with 'Merry Christmas,'" he said. "Here it's 'Chag Sameach.'"
Hochman explained that he came to Israel to immerse himself in life in the Jewish state after anti-Israel sentiment on the Berkeley campus, where he was a student, pushed him to learn about the country's history and purpose.
"It's one thing to read about it. I wanted to experience it myself. That's why I came here," he said.
Isaacs said that many WUJS students have been pulled to Israel for similar reasons. "People feel they are participating in this dramatic period in Jewish history, in Israel. They're not just sitting at home watching television and worrying about Israel," he said. "They're sharing the experience of living in Israel as it goes through a difficult time."
After Herzog spent her junior year at Haifa University in 1999-2000, she knew wanted to return; she felt she needed to come now "to learn more about what it means to live in Israel at all times, and to be supportive of Israel and to be with a community of people who feel it's important to be here now."
But she added that the violence also made it harder to decide to come. "It's terrifying, what can I say? It's a very scary time in Israel's history."
At the same time, she noted, "As an American being in Israel at this time, I get the sense that people here are quite gratified that there are still people coming -- and I get some that say, 'Are you crazy?'"
Hochman hears the same question from people back home, but he responds by pointing to the incident in which two people were killed at the El Al counter at LAX. "I could be in Los Angeles and get shot."
Hochman said he's considering making aliyah before he loses his army eligibility so he can participate in this essential ingredient of Israeli life.
The threat of terror occasionally creeps into his consciousness, he said, "but then you realize that you can't live your life like that."
Herzog, who studied history and is fascinated with the historical lessons Israel provides, noted that while "there's such a memory in Israel" which spans Jewish history from the Torah to the birth of the State of Israel, "you need to have a very short-term memory" to deal with the current spate of violence.
But memories are especially important to Herzog, who recently volunteered at a museum and learning center created by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising who now live on a kibbutz in the Galilee. She's considering a career in Jewish education and plans to study at a yeshiva this fall partly to pursue this idea: "I need to know it before I can teach it."
At the yeshiva she also hopes to immerse herself in Torah and continue to explore her newfound connection with prayer. Growing up socially -- but not ritually -- connected to Judaism, she studied the story of Ruth this past Shavuot and was inspired to take a closer look at observance.
"It talked to me in a way that was emotional, that I hadn't experienced before," she said of the biblical book. "I've been finding more of a openness within myself in prayer, and it's something that I'm very inspired to do."
She praised WUJS for providing a pluralistic community where students follow many different spiritual paths, from Orthodox to secular, but all dialogue with each other.
"WUJS' aim is not to make people more observant," said Isaacs of the program, which isn't affiliated with a particular stream of Judaism and provides an optional religious program that features traditional services. "WUJS' aim is to encourage people to engage seriously with their own Jewishness, and to challenge themselves."