Rachel in the Spotlight: Religion in Beit She’an, Diversity in Haifa, and Studying in Leiden #35

Rachel Zagury (24) was born close to the border with Jordan in Beit She’an, Israel. After finishing her Bachelor’s degree in Haifa, she moved to Leiden in the Netherlands for her Master’s in Arts and Culture at Leiden University.

How was it to grow up in Beit She’an in Israel?

Well, Beit She’an is a very small place, basically a village, with around twenty-thousand inhabitants and everyone knows everyone. The villagers are very religious, and almost everyone keeps Shabbat and Kosher, for example.

My family is very religious as well, my father visits the synagogue daily. His family is from Morocco and they used to keep Shabbat and visited the synagogue weekly back in Morocco. My father was born there, but because he was born in the sixties he moved to Israel when he was very young. So, he comes from a very long tradition of religious Moroccan Jewry.

My mother, however, grew up Christian here in the Netherlands. When she studied Linguistics – mainly focussed on Hebrew and Aramaic – in Leiden, she learned about Judaism and she immediately felt a connection with it. Due to her non-Jewish background, she had to learn all the traditions from scratch, basically. What made it easier for her was that during her conversion, she met my dad through one of her friends, and he helped her a lot!

in beit she'an

Before she met my dad, my mom already decided that she wanted to make Aliyah. But, when she met my dad they prepared the Aliyah process together. So, my dad was born in Morocco and my mother in the Netherlands, and I am the first of my family who was born in Israel!

You decided to study in Haifa, how was the switch from the small and Jewish town of Beit She’an to the large multicultural Haifa?

It is a pretty big city, yes, but I did feel very comfortable there. It is not as intense as Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, for instance. One of the practical advantages of moving to Haifa was that I was finally able to go to the cinema to watch a movie, something that was not possible in the small town of Beit She’an.

Something that was very different in Haifa, when compared to Beit She’an, was the diversity of the people. In Haifa, you have Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Jews, and Druze. I really liked the inclusivity of the city and how people interact there. Growing up in Beit She’an, I lived in a small religious community, and I noticed that many people were not that fond of non-Jewish Israelis. Moving to Haifa, however, gave me the opportunity to get to know how other people lived their lives in Israel.

I really enjoyed learning about other cultures, ethnicities and traditions when I lived in Haifa, and I think that this curiosity also motivated me to go to Leiden for my Master’s.

Leiden is a bit smaller than Haifa and also has a very small Jewish community, what do you think of the city?

Well, moving to Leiden was not that much of a cultural shock for me because I travelled to the Netherlands often to visit the family of my mother. It is just small enough for me here. Like in Haifa, I can go to the movies without having to travel to another city!

I moved to Leiden in January this year and when I arrived I was mostly interested in learning more about the Netherlands and Dutch culture, instead of looking for all the Jews or Israelis here. However, when it was Purim I felt like I wanted a bit more of a community around me. I visited the local synagogue in Leiden for a Megillah reading and it was lovely. It was very different from what I am used to in Israel, because here it is an Ashkenazi synagogue, and it was a very small synagogue with mostly elderly people.

The good experience during Purim in Leiden made me think, and I decided that I did want to be more active again and find people with whom I have this connection that I do not have with non-Jewish people. At Purim, I met a girl who also lived in Leiden and who invited me to join her at Chabad on Campus for Shavuot. That was my first time at Chabad here in the Netherlands and I liked it a lot!

You grew up in Beit She’an, studied in Haifa and then moved to Leiden. Would you like to live in one of these three places after your studies?

I do want to stay in the Netherlands and try to find something related to my studies, maybe an internship or a job at a museum, for example. However, if I do not have any opportunities here, I do not think that I would necessarily stay in the Netherlands. Maybe I would look for opportunities in other countries in Europe, but I am not planning on returning to Israel in the near future.

Beit She’an, for example, is a very nice place to live when you have a family. For now, however, it is too small with not many opportunities for me. If I do return to Israel I would probably live in Haifa. There are more opportunities for me in the art world or in museums if I live in Haifa, and although it is less intense than Central Israel, it is still a big city, has a beach, and I loved the atmosphere of cultural and religious diversity.

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