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A Havdallah to Remember

January 4, 2019
Becca Zeltsman

Roslyn, New York, United States

A dark room filled with five hundred people, illuminated by a single flickering candle. Five hundred people from America, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Latvia, and the rest of the former Soviet Union. Five hundred teenagers, adults, children, grandparents. Five hundred Jewish people joined together through the power of culture and religion. Five hundred people gathered in a circle, held hand in hand, arm in arm. No language barrier, societal status, or country of origin can break the bonds between these five hundred people because the power of song transcends, the power of prayer shines through, and the power of the Jewish people is stronger than ever.

The concept of a universal language understood all around the world seems completely unrealistic, right? A dialect used and appreciated from America to Europe, from Israel to South America, comprehended by all. How could there be such a thing? Russian is completely different from English, which has no relation to Hebrew and varies completely from Spanish. But on this night of congregation, symbolizing the end to yet another shabbos, I witnessed the existence and strength of this strange universal language. I witness not only the existence of this language but five hundred voices singing it in unison. And what is this language?

It is the language of the Jewish people, a people in this world since 1812 BC.

Hundreds of thousands of people united by this single language. A language stripped away from millions due to the disgusting attempts of the Nazi soldiers during the Holocaust. A language banned under the reign of the USSR for almost 70 years. A language that has time and time again been subject to attack. But most importantly, a language our generation is singing and chanting, one Havdalah service at a time.

In November, I had the opportunity to participate in a Havdallah service. But not just any Havdallah service—there was something different about this one. Maybe it was the fact that I was halfway across the world in Kiev, Ukraine. Maybe it was the five hundred unfamiliar faces around me. Or maybe even the five hundred voices singing in different tones, accents, and volumes that created this new sensational experience. It was this past week that I viewed firsthand the power of this universal language. Teens coming from countries, families, and backgrounds all around the world who had an inherent and complete understanding of what it means to be a Jew. No teaching or practice was needed, the minute that first guitar string was played, it was five hundred voices chanting the blessings over the wine, spices, and candles. And it was this past week that I understood more than ever how vibrantly alive our Jewish generation is today.

For me, a language barrier was not an issue on this trip to Ukraine. Coming from Soviet immigrant parents, and eating borscht and pelmeni since I’d grown my first teeth, I felt immersed in Ukraine’s culture even before attending this program. But while there may not have been a language barrier, there was something that really stood out to me, not only on this night but on this trip as a whole. It was an amazing sight to see how passionate these teenagers, just like me, are about their religion. From nations where Jewish people were persecuted, discriminated against, and stripped of their beliefs, I would never have imagined such a love for one another created solely by the power of Judaism. It was at this Havdallah service that my heart burst with emotions and my hand clenched a Russian girl’s hand as if I never wanted to let go. It was at this Havdallah service I realized the power of Judaism as it connected people across the globe in song, prayer, and pure love.

And it was at this Havdallah service that I found the importance of ensuring that our universal language is never subject to destruction again. I recognized it is up to me to continue singing, chanting, and teaching this language.

Just like that, the single flickering candle illuminating that entire room went out and our circle disassembled; it was then that I witnessed a sight I will never forget. Each and every single person in that room, regardless of whether they were friends or not, hugged their neighbor as closely as possible and wished them a good week. Although it was dark and the singing had stopped, the love in the room remained strong and my sense of belonging even stronger.

I am so grateful to Genesis Philanthropy Group for making this experience possible.

Becca Zeltsman is a BBG from Nassau Suffolk Region and loves pugs. In particular, she loves Doug the pug!

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