Masa Israel Journey Blog

Published : October 25, 2012
When I told people I was going to study abroad in Jerusalem, they inevitably made a face. 
“Why don’t you go to Europe? You spent all that time learning French,” some said. Or, “Oh I’ve heard of Semester at Sea. I didn’t know there was Semester at Synagogue too.” 
From family members who only had my best interests at heart, I heard, “Thank goodness, now you’ll find a Jewish husband” followed by, “But once you find him, you better make that jerk move back to America. Israel is just too far away.” 
Initially, I chose to study at the Masa Israel-accredited program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem because I was a history major at Berkeley.  Unlike in California, where even artifacts from the 20th century are noteworthy, Jerusalem is filled with ancient history. In the biblical city, calling the 16th century Old City Walls “old” is a misnomer. 
While studying in Jerusalem, I found that biblical events, which are common knowledge to all, are discussed as if they happened just the other day.  I also found that because Jerusalem is so important to so many groups of people, the past is even more alive because it is still being written.  
Every day, I was amazed to find my studies brought to life.
For this reason, I imagined that anyone—Jewish or not—would be interested in studying in Jerusalem.
Yet, one of the big surprises was that despite my secular background, I experienced indescribable joy while standing before the Kotel, the Wailing Wall. A deep connection was forged between the Wall and me, and I know this awed reverence will bring me back again and again. 
Of course I faced challenges while living in Jerusalem.  Overcoming the language barrier and acclimating to the sometimes-prickly interactions with Sabras—or cacti fruit, as Israelis are locally called—were not easy tasks. But during my six months in Jerusalem, something shifted inside of me. 
In Jerusalem I discovered a newfound appreciation of Judaism, a greater acceptance of myself, and a better grasp of what is important to me.   
From Israelis, who deal with security threats and tragedy all their lives, I learned to let go of the things that don’t matter. 
Israelis also taught me to embrace all of life’s good moments. In Israel, Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance for all the fallen soldiers, is celebrated right before Yom Hatzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day.  
There is a stark contrast between the reading of the names of those who have died and the elation that can suddenly be felt at sunset.  But that is how life can be in Israel: fickle and extreme. 
Having returned from my semester in Jerusalem, I feel better equipped to handle the challenges and uncertainty that life inevitably brings, and I am more appreciative of all the good that life has to offer.
Published : October 24, 2012
By Alex Willick, Otzma
This is what I’m doing for my first three months in Israel. I’m an assistant coach for the middle school’s basketball team in the town in which I live (Karmi’el). How I wound up in this position is a funny story in itself.  
Within the first week of my moving to Karmi’el, I met the Mayor, Adi Eldar. I spoke with him briefly about sports and Karmi’el’s awful 3rd Division Soccer team, but I also mentioned I was interested in becoming involved in youth sports in town.
He immediately had his assistant write down a number for me to call the next day, and after having my translator (the director of the immigrant absorption center where I live) speak to the head of youth sports, I was connected with the head basketball coach for all the schools here. He was happy to have an assistant (an exotic American one, no less), and welcomed me at practice the following day.  
It has been 6 weeks since I began at the school, and I feel incredibly blessed that I’ve wound up here. I may not be an especially talented basketball player in the States, but here, I’m absolutely qualified to coach. My soccer skills, however, have some room for improvement in the eyes of the Middle Easterners.
The kids love having an American around to joke around with and to show off their NBA gear.  Seriously, they love the NBA. If they’re not wearing their team jersey, they’re sporting LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, or even the classics (check out Michael Jordan, standing, fourth from the left).
And I benefit by having 18 little Israeli midgets that don’t care that my Hebrew is elementary and are happy to teach me along the way. I’ve learned some vocabulary that I never thought I would need.  For example, l’cadrer (to dribble).
Serving Israeli society has proven rewarding and incredibly fun. 
A bona fide child of the Tri-State Area, Alex Willick was born in Bergen County, NJ, raised in Westport, Connecticut, and subsequently lived in New York City.  He graduated from Colgate University in 2009, where he studied music and philosophy, both of which continue to be passionate areas of study.  He has spent the last few years working for the Jewish community in New York City, including a year and a half at UJA-Federation of New York and some time at Heeb Magazine.
Since the summer of 2011, Alex has been living in Israel as a member of Project Otzma, and he is happy to have the opportunity to live and serve with the people he loves, in the country he loves.  After a year of living in places that tourists rarely have the opportunity to visit, he cannot wait to be back and making Israel an even greater part of his identity. In August, 2012, he will be beginning his graduate studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, and will be a candidate for a Master’s in Jewish Experiential Education with a specialty in Israel Education in 2014.
Alex is also a musician, writer, and photographer, and his blog can be found at


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