Growing up in a small Jewish community in St. Augustine, Florida, Shauna Gamsey attended Sunday school and celebrated the Jewish holidays with her family, but it wasn’t until college that she became involved in the Jewish community on her own. Shortly after graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in anthropology, Shauna traveled to Israel for the first time with Birthright.
“Before then, I hadn’t spent a lot of time surrounded by Jewish culture, and as an anthropology major, it was fascinating to meet Jews from all over the world,” says Shauna. “A whole new world opened up for me and I knew that I needed to experience more of it.”
Shauna stayed a few extra months to travel the country and made plans to spend that year saving up for her next extended stay in Israel through Masa Israel’s OTZMA, a 10-month service program. In August 2010, Shauna set out for Israel, where she would spend the first two months living in an immigrant absorption center and learning Hebrew in Ashkelon, and the next eight months teaching English in Yerucham, a small development town in southern Israel.
“The periphery was interesting to me because of its diverse populations—Russian, Moroccan, and Indian Jews,” says Shauna. “I also knew that it was the right place to work on my Hebrew.”
Shauna spent her days tutoring students at the local public school in English and preparing them for their national exams. “About one percent of the Yerucham population speaks English so there was definitely a huge language gap, but we did have breakthroughs,” says Shauna. “There wasn’t a whole lot going on in the community to distract us and we were really able to dedicate ourselves to our work.”
On Shabbats and holidays, community families welcomed Shauna into their homes for meals and celebrations. During Passover, Shauna volunteered in Ashalim, helping build homes with Ayalim, an organization that promotes the development and settlement of the Negev and the Galilee, and then returned to Yerucham for Mimouna, a North African celebration held the day after Passover.
“It was incredible to literally build the desert and be part of an idealistic Zionism, and then to return to Yerucham to take part in a tradition in which everyone opens their doors to their neighbors and visits each other,” says Shauna. “Though I was very far from my family, the experience really made me feel at home.”
Now back in Florida, Shauna will soon be returning to Israel to continue her education in a Masters program at Ben Gurion University.