I’m thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, not present with my family during, arguably, the most important day of the year for Christians. While my family visits and celebrates the birth of our Savior with extended family in Lynchburg, Virginia, opening gifts and reading the traditional Christmas story found in Luke chapter 2, I am welcoming in the Shabbat with a wonderful Jewish community in Israel. It seems like my friends and family had one question for me at the conclusion of my Christmas Day away from home: Was it hard for me to not only be absent from family on such a significant holiday, but also not participate in the familiar celebration that many Christians spend most of the year anticipating. My immediate thought, without having to think very long, was not the answer they were expecting. I responded by explaining to my loved ones that I would not have wanted to spend my Christmas 2015 any other way. I shared with them that I wish they too could have experienced Shabbat on Christmas Day as I had. I still have more than a week left on my trip through Zionist Organization of America, and we have not even experienced Jerusalem yet, but I can honestly say that my time spent partaking in such a Jewish celebration on my religion’s most precious holiday is the highlight of my Israel experience.
I’ve been to Israel and greeted my Israeli friends with “Shabbat shalom” before. I believed that I understood what this meant. Jews have their Sabbath on Saturday, while Christian’s observe their day of rest on Sunday – not a big deal. Little did I know that this belief was just a small piece of the puzzle. Walking into Synagogue for evening service on Friday was, in one word, overwhelming. The passionate convictions and traditions that the Jews observe are actions and scenes that one could have observed thousands of years before. The identity and heritage of the religious Jewish people are so intrinsic to their very character; against all odds, the Jews’ unique personality has been preserved, ultimately, because of traditions such as Shabbat. There was such a sense of community and fervent regard for this event, and as a Christian witnessing this, I was amazed. I probably asked my Jewish friends and host family a million and one questions, and they happily answer and explained why. Those within the Christian community on the trip were also asked questions about our holiday from practicing Jews. The wonderful irony of spending Christmas Day in Israel on Shabbat was one of the most exceptional memories I have in my life thus far.
I’ll conclude with the message I was able to share with my wonderful host family on such a night as Shabbat. As a Gentile, I marvel as the success and prevalence of the Jews throughout history. The blessing of such a people being called the chosen is undeniable when learning about not only the history of such people, but the incredible odds that were stacked against them time and time again. To see such an observance as Shabbat and witness the chosen people bless G-d in return for all that He’s has provided and protected and will continue to provide and protect was a powerful encounter with the spiritual realm. That evening, I prayed to this same G-d through whom Christians believe is His Son and thanked the same Providence the Jews thanked during Shabbat. I will hold this memory dear to my heart and try to explain to those that I love just how I felt and just what I observed, but the truth is, this specific encounter can only be experienced first-hand. I will cherish the traditions that I learned and the people I met who practice such customs. A Christian on Christmas observing Shabbat in Israel is definitely not the most conventional activity, but it is the most ideal.