When I decided to study abroad, I knew I wanted an experience that was more exotic than the usual study abroad options Europe offered.
So, I chose Israel.
After a long flight and an adventurous taxi ride, I arrived at the Masa Israel-accredited University of Haifa.
Tired and jet-lagged, I entered my apartment to find three students jabbering in an unfamiliar language.
I froze in the doorway and their conversation came to a halt.
One approached me and mumbled in that mysterious language, but I was too confused to answer.
Next, she spoke to me in Hebrew and I indicated that I understood some Hebrew. Her two companions looked apprehensive and then she replied—in English—that they did not speak English.
They resumed their conversation in Arabic, while my mind whirled.
I had anticipated Israeli roommates, but I had not expected them to be Arab-Israelis.
As the days passed, my suitemates and I maintained our self-imposed cultural barrier, yet I recognized that this would not work for the next six months.
There was a simple solution to this obstacle; I had to adapt to this situation.
I needed to integrate myself into their lives and make an effort to assimilate into Arab culture.
It did not take long for me to discover a way.
In our shared kitchen, one of my roommates peeled potatoes.
With a flurry of charades, I mimed chopping vegetables. She laughed, and with that, I helped her make dinner.
In return she invited me to eat with them.
It was through this unconventional body language that I nudged myself into the lives of my roommates.
As my Hebrew classes continued, my ability to speak with them increased.
Eventually they became more than just suitemates. They became my adopted sisters, and out of respect for them, I enrolled in a conversational Arabic course.
Every day my roommates sat around a table with me to quiz me on my Arabic and Hebrew and guide my hand in scripting words.
After my Semitic language session, they would retrieve their English books and I would help them.
Not only did we share our languages, but our families as well.
My roommates invited their family to visit and throughout my six months in Haifa I dined with each family numerous times.
During those meals, I would show them pictures of my relatives and with my limited Arabic, I would describe my parents and siblings.
Also while studying abroad, I had the opportunity to volunteer, and once a week a group of students and I traveled to Qiryat Haim, a neighborhood located in Haifa’s suburbs.
At the Emerich Ressler Memorial Youth Center, a center for at-risk youth, I worked with an Ethiopian Israeli named Ziva.
This bright 16 year old was born in Israel after her parents walked hundreds of miles to be airlifted out of Ethiopia via Operation Solomon in hopes of reaching the promised land.
Before I met Ziva, I was not aware of the large Ethiopian minority in Israel, or how they had come to Israel.
Like teenagers all over the world, Ziva felt a gap between herself and her parents. Only for her, the gap was not just a result of teenage rebelliousness, but of cultural issues.
Neither one of her parents could read or write in Hebrew, let alone in their native language, Amharic.
They also had difficulties in speaking the language of their adoptive land.
As a child, Ziva had become her parents’ link to Israeli culture and society, a pattern found throughout many other Ethiopian Israeli families in transition.
Ziva felt stretched between two separate worlds: the one belonging to her family and the one belonging to the land where she was born.
She was eager to join another one: the Israeli army. For her, the army represented a true melting-pot; one she believed would be free from the racial discrimination she faced daily.
When I left Israel I realized that I had achieved my aim—to fully experience Israeli culture—which is a wonderfully complicated and diverse mix of many cultures.