Masa Israel Journey Blog

Published : January 24, 2013
Emily Kohuth, Conservative Yeshiva
 
Several months ago I opened a Rosh Hashanah e-card from a fellow former ulpan student. 
 
She asked if I remembered her. 
 
Really, how could I forget her; she was a four-and-a-half foot-tall ball of fire—a feisty, opinionated Latina grandmother.  
 
On the surface we had little in common besides our low-level Hebrew course at Jerusalem’s Ulpan Beit Ha’am. 
 
I was a semi-newly minted metal smith and Judaica artist in search of a better Jewish education, and she was a retired secretary fulfilling her dream of making aliyah.  
 
But there we were together, comparing our homework assignments at 7:15 each morning, five days a week for four months, and trying to find our footing in Jerusalem.
 
Finding my way was not simple. 
 
For one thing I have no sense of direction, and of course my painful lack of Hebrew skills was an obvious hindrance, but I also knew no one in the country when I first touched down in Tel Aviv. 
 
During my first few hours in Israel, I felt like my ancestors probably had when they arrived at Ellis Island. I passed through customs at Ben-Gurion Airport with just a suitcase, an address in my pocket, and a fiendish case of vertigo. 
 
Fortunately, the address led me to my first piece of stable ground, the Conservative Yeshiva, where I would study Jewish subjects thanks to a grant from Masa Israel Journey.  
 
When the Yeshiva’s associate director handed me a cup of water and made sure I was settled into the adjoining hostel, I believed that I was well on my way to building a spiritual relationship with my new home. 
 
However, the daily reality of dodging vehicles driving on the sidewalks and sidestepping a minefield of dog droppings strained what should have been an instant connection to the holy city. 
 
Even at the Kotel, the Jewish geographical heart, I experienced a barrier that was both physical and emotional while pressed into the tiny women’s section.
 
Within a few months, I did find my place in the ancient city, though. 
 
With time to immerse myself in Jewish learning, I progressed in my classes at the Conservative Yeshiva.  Eventually, I found myself following along in the daily prayer services at the Yeshiva; I no longer stood in the back, faking the choreography.  
 
Shabbat dinners alongside friends revealed the beauty of my religion to me more than any holy site.  
 
On the Jerusalem Streets, I got to know the raw Israeli culture when a passing jogger stopped to lecture me on the deleterious nature of diet soda and when a woman pushed a stroller up to my friend and me at a restaurant’s outdoor seating, demanding that we watch her child.  
 
Even as we gaped at her as she strode in, I realized that Israelis are like your outspoken family members, freely dispensing advice. 
 
For a brief time, I was privileged to be a member of that family.
 
Even now that I have returned to verdant Massachusetts, there is still a part of me that is utterly convinced that if I walk out of my front door I will step onto Ben Yehuda Street or Emek Refaim or run into my favorite Latina grandmother. 
 
Back in my polite town, I can only think of one thing:
 
I want to go home. 
Published : January 22, 2013
 
I came to Israel to learn. 
 
I was studying at She’arim College of Jewish Studies for Women, a small but highly recommended school. 
 
I was living in the Jerusalem suburb of Har Nof, a town built into the hills on the edge of the very young Jerusalem forest. 
 
I found myself in a dorm (an apartment rented by the school) with seven other girls, three of whom were engaged, with weddings fast approaching. 
 
It was all strange, and I felt lost. 
 
But time went by and I began to adjust. 
 
I had become addicted to my classes, and was making new friends every day.
 
 I was learning about the country, both in classes and on tiyulim where we got to tour and see the land up close. 
 
I even learned the bus routes, which was something totally new to me, having grown up in a two-car family in the suburbs of Northern California. 
 
I was practicing my Hebrew everywhere I could. 
 
Suddenly, I wasn’t lost. 
 
I found things that threw me initially – aggressive speech, pushing to get on the bus – transformed  into things I accepted, even understood. 
 
People yelled, but more often than not it wasn’t in anger. 
 
If someone was trying to get off a packed bus, every person within ten feet of them would be calling to the bus driver to hold the bus, to open the rear doors. 
 
People argued – people loved to argue – but it wasn’t about being right and proving someone else wrong. 
 
If you asked for directions you were running the risk of sparking a lively debate among everyone within earshot, but you would get directions. 
 
On more than one occasion when I asked which stop I needed, someone would not only tell me the stop and point it out to me when we arrived, but would actually walk off the bus with me to point me in the right direction. 
 
For better and worse, everyone was treated like family. 
 
It surprised me. 
 
But I think what surprised me most was my morning walk to school.
 
I left my building a little after 8 am, along with many of the neighborhood kids on their way to school. 
 
One morning, a little boy, who couldn’t have been more than four years old, walked up to me and asked me in Hebrew, “Excuse me. Can you please walk me across the street?” He then offered me his hand.
 
 I blinked at him, thinking of all the times as a child I had been warned never to approach or talk to strangers. 
 
Then I took his hand and walked him across the street.
 
Once across he said, “Thank you!” and ran off to join some friends up ahead.
 
I asked about this when I got to school, and one of my teachers explained that this neighborhood was both very religious and very safe; the children were in more danger from reckless drivers than from kidnappers, so their parents had trained them to find a responsible-looking adult and ask for help crossing the roads. 
 
I was raised in a safe neighborhood, but it still baffled me to imagine a world where the strangers on the street were there to befriend, to help you – to trust.  
 
I think that sense of unity more than anything else was what turned my 8-month trip into an 18-month stay. 
 
I had found a place where teachers warmly invited you into their homes, not to mention strangers you met in the market or on the bus. 
 
A place where taxi drivers had strong opinions about your personal life, and children on the street offered you their hands. 
 
In Israel, the idea of a Jewish Nation isn’t lip service; it’s a way of life. 
 
There were so many things I loved about my time in Israel, so many things that I learned. 
 
But this was my favorite: I learned what the word homeland means. 
 
I learned that a Jew never has to be lost.      

 

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