We learned from the wee hours of the morning until late at night, but Torah study is incomplete without chessed, or acts of kindness. This was a lesson I learned while a student at Midreshet Harova, a Masa Israel-accredited seminary in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Coming from LA, there was no shortage of interesting experiences happening right in my backyard—like that night when I was walking through the corridor-like streets and saw a guy carrying a live sheep on his shoulders because, as he said, “I have the strength, so why not?”
Still, I chose to fill my Tuesday afternoon elective slot by leaving the Jewish Quarter behind to get my dose of chessed. My first volunteer spot was Lifta, which got its name, my friends and I joked, because we had to “lifta lot of rocks.” The six of us took a bus to the entrance of Jerusalem and then stumbled down a dirt road to reach our site: a neglected building that we were renovating to turn into a drug rehabilitation center for teens. We painted doors, removed stones and debris, and generally tried to make it look more presentable. It wasn’t quite as vigorous as digging out the Kotel tunnels, but we definitely earned the falafel dinner that awaited us back at seminary.
Later in the year, I volunteered at the soup kitchen, Chazon Yeshaya on Rashi Street, near the Machaneh Yehuda shuk (outdoor market). From my first day of volunteering until the day I sadly told them I wouldn’t be back the next week, I felt like they were doing chessed for me instead of vice versa. Tamir, the head of the kitchen, referred to me as tzadika, saint, and the other senior volunteers always asked me about school, how things were going, and when I was planning on making aliyah. Mostly, I followed the directions they fired off in rapid Hebrew to hand out trays to the people who came for lunch, pack food for them to take home, and clean up the lunch room afterwards.
It was so fulfilling to take part in such beautiful service that I was unsure if I was really doing it for them or for myself. Tuesdays soon became my favorite day of the week, and of course it didn’t hurt that afterward I often moseyed over to the shuk to pick up dried dates and other delectable treats.
Now, back in the US, there’s a lot about Israel that I long for, but one of the main things I miss is that sincere concern that each Israeli I met had for me and every Jew. While volunteering, I not only learned the importance of tikkun olam, doing our part to fix the world, but I also grasped the importance of being united with the community and truly caring for the well-being of one another.