If anyone was wondering why they haven’t seen me for the past year, it’s because I, along with many of my peers, have been out of the country. Wondering whether it is wise to send an 18-year-old fresh out of high school to another country for a year? I, too, pondered that question as my El Al flight touched down and I first headed to Michlalah, a seminary in Jerusalem. (And yes, I know, your mother went there too.)
But as the year flew by it quickly became apparent that this year was an extraordinary opportunity for growth. Growth in my learning skills, tefillah, and understanding of and connection to Torah. Growth in my independence and responsibility: traveling, finding places to go for Shabbos, and making myself two meals a day.
And then, in a whirlwind of tearful goodbyes and suitcases bulging with sefarim, it was over. An army of seminary girls trudged onto homebound El Al flights. My friend and I, however, had different plans. We had decided, along with our parents (thank you, Mommy and Daddy!) to stop over for a week and a half in Europe and tour cities in Italy and France.
As we planned our trip, questions suddenly arose that we hadn’t had to deal with for an entire year. Where would we find kosher food? What would we do for Shabbos? Should I tuck my Shema necklace into my shirt when we got to Paris, in light of the recent anti-Semitism there?
But the stark difference between Europe and Israel didn’t fully hit me until we stepped off the plane in Rome. On our plane, an Israeli flight, there had been plenty of Israelis and Jews. But as I walked down the metal steps into the bright sun there was not a Jew in sight. Later that day, on our tour of the Colosseum and the Forum, for the first time in a year I was conscious—not uncomfortable, but conscious—of the fact that with my longer skirt and sleeves and Hebrew-lettered jewelry, I looked distinctly Jewish.
We had requested a kosher breakfast option in our Rome hotel, so when we headed to the kitchen Friday morning we were excited to see the hotel manager gesture to an abundant pile of pastries, fruit and cheeses, telling us proudly in broken English that it was “all kosher—from Jewish ghetto.” But although many of the stores in the Jewish ghetto area were kosher, many were not. In Europe, there aren’t always clear symbols on the packaging that indicate kashrut, like we have in America. Upon further investigation, we realized that only a few of the products were actually kosher. Making sure to thank him profusely, we discreetly avoided eating most of the food, sighing inwardly with relief that we had decided to check and not just rely on the hotel website.
Things got more complicated as Shabbos approached and we realized we had a dilemma on our hands. While planning, we had known that there was no eruv and we would not be able to carry a key. We assumed we would leave the key with the front desk in the lobby. But it turned out that this hotel had a different system. They gave us two keys—one to our room, and one to the door of the outer building. Though very nice, the hotel staff told us that since they were really a bed-and-breakfast, they were only there in the morning. Nobody else could unlock the building for us, which meant we needed to carry a key.
Faced with this quandary with only a few hours left until Shabbos, we did two things. We got in touch with rabbanim and parents, and we got creative. First, I asked a rabbi from Michlalah, with whom I had consulted about previous halachic questions related to our trip, if I could carry the key on a chain, as a necklace. He replied that this was not allowed, because the only reason one can wear a necklace charm with no eruv is as a tachshit—a piece of jewelry, an adornment. This was not the case with our key.
Our last resort would be to hide the key near the door and hope for the best. We found a niche behind a box on the outer door frame, and jammed the key inside.
Then, my friend’s father came up with a great idea. There is another way one is allowed to have something attached to their clothes, besides as a tachshit. That is if it is an integral part of their outfit. So, about a half hour before Shabbos we pried the key out of the box and created a sort of hook-and-eye situation with the key and my friend’s belt, making sure that the key itself allowed the belt to be attached. We checked with the rabbi, who confirmed that it was OK. The following week, when we stayed in the Jewish community in Paris for Shabbos, which also does not have an eruv, we were amused to see that many Jews owned commercially sold “key belts” to use for this very purpose. Having only lived in communities with an eruv, we had been completely oblivious to this phenomenon until now.
Although these kinds of situations could be somewhat challenging, I also found them to be very empowering. I had just spent a year immersed in classes that taught me to know halacha and observe it scrupulously; to maintain my beliefs, even if everyone around me behaves differently; and to have pride for my religion and my people. And now I was stepping into the world and being given a chance to put these theories into practice. I cannot think of a better way to transition from seminary, and I am very grateful to have had this opportunity.
By Rachel Retter
Rachel Retter is a third-year intern and contributor to The Jewish Link. She is a rising sophomore in Stern College for Women.