Bella Shapiro

Israel Government Fellows
As much as I love the movie Forest Gump, I do not agree that, “Life is like a box of chocolates.” After returning from Masa Israel’s Israel Government Fellows, a 10-month Israeli government internship program, with the decision to pursue a career connected to Israel and the Jewish people, I believe that life is more like a cake in which layers are slowly built and stacked one on top of the other. 
My evolution was definitely not predictable. While I grew up in the Bay Area with a certain awareness of my “Jewishness”—my parents told me I had to marry a nice Jewish boy and we celebrated the high holidays in our own way—I never cared or even knew about the politics, history, or depth of my own rich heritage. 
Like many Jewish youth, it wasn’t until midway through college that I began getting involved in Jewish life. I attended St. Mary’s College of California, a Catholic liberal arts school, and decided to take the one introductory Judaism course that my school offered. While studying abroad in England, I participated in a rally protesting Holocaust deniers’ speaking engagements at the university. After returning to the States, I became active with UC Berkeley Jewish groups (as none were available at St. Mary’s) and saw the challenges facing Jewish students on college campuses. The more I took part in various activities, the more I realized how much these issues personally resonated with me. 
By the time senior year came along, I started thinking about my passions and how I could apply them to a career. Though my liberal arts degree did not provide me with much of a focus, I realized that ultimately I felt strongest about issues relating to Jews and Israel. With that in mind, I decided to test my theory and spend a year in Israel. I literally wanted to do everything – work, travel, learn the language, and immerse myself in the culture, history, and politics. 
Through Masa Israel Journey, I found the one program that was exactly what I was looking for – Israel Government Fellows, a unique 10 month internship in the Israeli government, which also included weekly educational seminars, meetings with top governmental officials, tours around the country, ulpan classes, and community service. 
My experiences during those 10 months were diverse and incredible. Not only did I have great internships at the Israel Ministry of Tourism and the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), but through my internships, I also had the opportunity to meet accomplished Israeli government officials, such as Shimon Peres, Nir Barkat, and Moshe Yaalon. Still the most important outcome of the year was my own personal growth. 
During my time in Israel, I found an independence and individual strength, which I was not aware that I possessed. Living alone in a foreign country and not knowing the language proved to be extremely difficult. Everything from opening a bank account to ordering a cup of coffee was a challenge. In the beginning, I distinctly remember feeling like I would never figure out the city or feel like a ‘Jerusalemite.’ Yet, by the end of the 10 months, I had a pub to call my own, was able to maneuver throughout the city with ease, and knew which vendor to go to for the best avocados in the shuk. Though they may seem like minor accomplishments, these were the things tested my resolve the most. 
Aside from adapting to day-to-day life in Israel while on Israel Government Fellows, I also reaffirmed my desire to commit my professional life to the Jewish people and the Jewish State. Israel Government Fellows provided me with unique insights into the workings of the Israeli government, while living in Israel allowed me to gain perspectives, which can only be acquired from first-hand, immersive experiences. As a result of this effective combination, I now have a better understanding of the type of job I would like to be doing and how I need to focus my passions. After taking part in a seven-week Hebrew immersion program at Middlebury College, I enrolled in Brandeis University's dual masters program in Jewish professional leadership and Middle East Studies. 
What started out as a vague notion of Jewish identity turned into a genuine love and desire to make a difference. Undoubtedly, living in Israel played a huge role in my personal development and impacted every aspect of my life. Looking back on this whole process, I see all the small steps I took which brought me where I am today. This is precisely why I do not agree with Forest Gump. I know exactly what I’m “going to get” because I have been the one building the layers. Though there is still progress to be made, I look forward to the day when I can finally put the cherry atop my cake.