Bama grad lights menorah at Israeli president’s residence

Israel’s president Isaac Herzog and Rebecca Gilbert at the recent Chanukah menorah lighting.

It’s not every Chanukah that a young woman from Georgia who graduated from the University of Alabama gets to light candles with the president of Israel.

Yet that was exactly the case as Rebecca Gilbert, a Jewish leader at Alabama during her time in Tuscaloosa, was among a select few invited to light the menorah with President Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal, at the president’s residence in Jerusalem.

Here is her account:

I am currently doing Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, a 10-month fellowship where native English speakers teach in Israeli public schools. I currently teach grades 3 to 6 along with two special education classes at Givat Gonen in Katamonim. (Masa means journey in Hebrew.)

My students come from the melting pot of Israeli culture. I work with secular and religious students from Ethiopian, Russian and Mizrachi backgrounds.

Having such a large variety of Israeli society in my classroom has opened my eyes to the wider Jewish community that is out there, and I have had the unique opportunity to experience Jewish culture through their lenses.

Since arriving in August I have attended a variety of Shabbat meals, went to a Sigd (an Ethiopian Jewish holiday) celebration with my students, and have celebrated one of my Russian student’s Bat Mitzvah.

I am grateful to be able to give Israeli students a chance to further their English skills while also building a bridge between the Jewish community in Israel and the United States. One of my favorite activities with my students is teaching them about the different Jewish traditions in America.

Bright Smiles

Regarding Chanukah, I taught the students how Jewish communities in the U.S. celebrate. I loved seeing their bright smiles and the exclamations of “Wow, Rebecca, you also light the menorah. You’re Jewish in the same way as me!”

As we continue to build these bridges, we become a stronger Jewish people.

When I heard I was one of eight out of 8,000 Masa participants to be selected to light the menorah at the president’s residence I was shocked. It was an incredible honor and one of my most memorable moments in Israel so far.

The organizer of the event told me I was chosen to represent the global Jewish community by being one out of eight. Each of us represented a different Masa program and community from around the world.

It was inspiring to be with a group of leaders, both government officials and Masa participants, who also share a passion for Israel and educating future generations about what Israel means to the Jewish people.

Speaking with the president and first lady was also a special experience. They were incredibly warm and welcoming and made the event feel personal.

Chanukah teaches us that even the smallest flame can brighten the darkest room.  As I continue my fellowship I hope to share my light with others — one word of English and one new connection at a time.