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.