By Laura Marder, University of Haifa
You know you had an unbelievable study abroad experience when it’s time to leave and you’re in a state of shock because your year flew by, exceeding every single one of your expectations. Sounds too good to be true? Well, this was exactly how I felt at the end of my year at Masa Israel’s University of Haifa program.
After my first two years in college, I was ready for a refreshing adventure abroad. I’d just received my associates degree in education as well as my cosmetology license, and soon planned to move on to Rutgers. At that point, I was worried that I’d have to choose a career focused on only one of my passions—cosmetology or Jewish Studies, and wanted to find a way to combine both in my future career. The perfect opportunity came along when the University of Haifa helped me create an internship for college credit where I could use my cosmetology skills at a nearby shelter for battered women.
On my first day, I came in quiet and excited with little notion of what lay ahead, and on my last day, I walked out in laughter and tears, with the most beautiful letters and keepsakes from the residents in hand. My days there were unlike anything I had ever experienced before. With whatever supplies I had, I gave the women weekly manicures and pedicures, as well as hair treatments, facials, and hand massages for relaxation. I also spent time with their kids, tutoring them in English and practicing my Hebrew. I felt so many different emotions over the course of my internship at the shelter. Sometimes I was furious that the women and children had experienced such harshness, while at other times, I was elated that these women and children had been lucky enough to get second chances in life.
During those months, I learned the true meaning of cosmetology—the act of giving another human being a sense of self-worth. With a simple splash of color, a caring touch, and a listening ear, I helped teach women how to respect and love themselves. It was a wonderful day when I walked into the shelter and saw colorful new murals, recently painted by the mothers and their children, covering the outside fences. As I stood admiring how the work made the whole place seem happier, one of the children gave me a hug and told me that I was the inspiration for the mural. Just as I had done, she too hoped to bring color and joy to the shelter. At that moment, I realized that this wasn’t just a college internship. This would give me direction for the rest of my life.
I’d traveled to Israel once more since Birthright, but while studying abroad, I finally stopped feeling like a tourist and started feeling like I really belonged. Going to the open-air produce market in Hadar, sharing Shabbat meals with amazingly welcoming families, visiting my own family, wandering ancient streets, and bumping into old friends all made Israel feel like my home.
Everyday, I learned both inside and outside of the classroom. In a modern Israeli literature course, I read BlueMountain and then looked out my window to see the land described in the book. I practiced Hebrew in my Hebrew ulpan course, and then it came alive in daily Hebrew conversations with roommates, counselors and cab drivers.
Holidays also brought me closer to the country. On Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day, I stood by the Western Wall as the siren sounded throughout Israel and listened to families speak of loved ones who died while serving the Jewish homeland. As we sang Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, I felt like we were all bound together, as a people, as a country, as a religion, and as a family—all mourning each other’s losses and honoring the soldiers’ immense sacrifices. Following this tearful day came Yom Haazmaut, Israel’s Independence Day—a day when it seemed like everyone was suddenly out on the streets rejoicing with Israeli flags draped from the windows and tied around people’s backs. Parties boomed on every corner and the country was alive and vibrant—so different than the day before. It was then that I was able to understand that Israelis can deal with their national hardship because of their great love and belief in their land, and their mindset of taking one day at a time and always being in the moment.
The following weekend, I took part in a Masa Israel-sponsored conference where I was able to share my feelings with other young adults, who felt the exact same way. Now back in New Jersey, I am currently finishing my degree in Jewish Studies. I also work as a Hebrew school teacher, which allows me to share my passion for Israel and Judaism with others. One day I hope to create a wellness program for young adults in Israel. My Masa Israel journey did not end when I returned to the United States. In fact, the knowledge and passion I gained while in Israel only just got me started.