Growing up in Manalapan, New Jersey, Rachel Shammah seemed like your typical all-American girl. She spent much of her time “chilling” with her neighbors and friends and participating in extracurricular activities after school such as gymnastics and soccer.
In 6th grade, Rachel, then Rachel Shevick, joined Junior NCSY. After her first Shabbaton, she became more heavily involved. Rachel’s family always did Friday night dinner but she had never experienced a Shabbat like that before, with kumzitzes and the classic NCSY Saturday night havdalah ceremony. Slowly, Rachel took more and more Jewish customs upon herself, while still practicing as a competitive gymnast, until she became fully Shomer Shabbat by the end of high school. She served on New Jersey NCSY’s Regional Board as Outreach Coordinator in 9th and 10th grade, and in 2004 she received the Torah Achievement Award.
After high school, Rachel took a gap year in Israel on the program Shalem. “Shalem allowed me to experience living in Israel and feel what it’s really like. My Hebrew got really good because I was surrounded by Israelis, volunteering in Tiveria with Argentine immigrants running their after school programs, and tutoring English in a girls school,” explains Rachel.
When she returned to America, although she wished to attend Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, her parents pushed her to go to Rutgers University where she spent two and a half years and a semester abroad in Argentina, a country she chose because of her fluency in Spanish. “Being at Rutgers helped me realized that I can mold religion to fit who I am. I really wanted to go to Stern but my parents did not allow it, and in the end ‘hakol letovah’ [it’s all for the best] because I had a great experience at Rutgers,” says Rachel.
At Rutgers, Rachel helped plan the Israeli culture festival, started a “chug Ivrit” (Hebrew speaking club), and assisted with a rally against hate crimes in memory of Ilan Halimi, a French Jew who was killed solely because he was Jewish. She was fortunate enough to staff two Birthright trips as a college student, giving her the small doses of Israel she needed while she was studying in America. During her time on campus, she also practiced capoeira, a Brazilian form of martial arts that originated from Brazilian slaves who had to hide their resistance training from their owners, so they disguised it as dance!
One significant and exciting part of Rachel’s life was backpacking through Southeast Asia and South America. After her semester abroad at the University of Belgrano in Buenos Aires, Rachel backpacked through Brazil, Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador with two friends. She hiked the Inca Trail and visited the famous Amazon rain forest in Brazil. In 2008, she returned to her beloved homeland, making aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh. She joined the Israeli Defense Forces after 6 months of living in Israel as a foreign relations liaison. As such, she oversaw all of the exchange of technology, weaponry, and intelligence that goes on between Israel and all the foreign armies Israel works with, and “I loved it!” she says.
Her husband, Alan, who she had been dating long-distance from America, surprised her and flew to Israel to propose, and 5 months later they were married in Deal, New Jersey, where they currently reside. Rachel currently works for Israel Free Spirit Birthright, where she helps other Jewish 18-26 year olds just like herself get to Israel to experience all the amazing things she did, and she will be staffing her third Birthright trip this summer! Her boss, Rabbi Dave Felsenthal, was actually her NCSY advisor in New Jersey NCSY and received a bracha (blessing) under her chuppah [at her wedding], bringing her full circle—from NCSY, back to NCSY.
From gymnastics to soccer, NCSY to the IDF, and Rutgers to the entire South America, it seems like Rachel covered all the bases on most people’s “Cool Things to Do Before I Die List,” but to her it’s just the tip of the iceberg! “I kind of just go with the flow, and when I find things that excite me, I just go for it! Who knows what’s next…” she says with a smirk.