I think that the best way to find out who you truly are as a person is to spend a significant amount of time outside of your comfort zone or to live away from home. For me, my junior year abroad at Tel Aviv University was that experience. Unlike most Diaspora Jews, I have no family in Israel nor do I have any Israeli family living in the states. What I do have was a deep love of Israel, Zionism, and Judaism - these are all values that were instilled in me as a kid.
During my time studying abroad at Tel Aviv University, I made some of the amazing friends who I am still in touch with today. I already spoke Hebrew fluently, but I improved my accent and learned a lot of the slang - though I have come to terms with the fact that I will never know all of the army slang.
I met so many amazing people from all over the world and learned so much from their experiences. Unlike most people who study abroad at Tel Aviv University and who live in the dorms, I chose to live in an apartment in the center of Tel Aviv so that I could get the “full Tel Aviv experience.”
I couldn’t have gotten luckier than to find an apartment right off of Sheinkin Street living with Israelis and other internationals. I spent my first two VERY jetlagged weeks exploring every nook and cranny of Tel Aviv during the wee hours of the morning before the shops, and the University opened – for some reason, Israeli shops don’t open until 10 or 11 AM when the shopkeepers feel like strolling in. This is how I learned Tel Aviv like the back of my hand and to this day, anytime I visit, it is like visiting my second home. I’m not on vacation when I go there; I’m back in a familiar place that I love.
During my time abroad, not only did I learn about the city and the people, but I learned about myself and my values. This was when I found out; I was my mother. Usually, when a girl finds out that she is her mother, she freaks out and has a quarter life crisis, I on the other hand, was so excited!
My mother is a strong woman who unapologetically loves Israel. She loves education, teaching people and, to give of herself to others. She also spent a significant amount of time living and teaching in Israel before she was married. It was during this trip that I decided that I would follow in my mother's footsteps and pursue a career in education instead of biochemistry which I had majored in at UCLA. Ask any of my friends and they would say, “I could have told you that Miri would be an educator ten years ago!” But I suppose all important lessons you must learn on your own. Upon returning home from my year abroad at Tel Aviv University and graduating from UCLA, I pursued a career in Israel education at StandWithUs.
Why was it so important for me to pursue such a career? They say that Israel advocates are made, not born, and I couldn’t agree more. During my freshman year at UCLA, I saw anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment that ignited my passion for Israel advocacy. I was never prepared to respond to anti-Israel claims or rhetoric even though I grew up at a Jewish Day School and Jewish summer camp. I knew in my heart of hearts that what I heard on campus was wrong and deceitful, but I didn’t know how to respond.
From then on, I sought out the help of the pro-Israel group on campus and educated myself until I had the confidence to stand up for Israel. When I returned from my junior year abroad at Tel Aviv University, I became the president of Bruins for Israel, UCLA’s pro-Israel group on campus, and when I graduated, I started working for StandWithUs. I knew that I had to give back as a professional since the organization had given me so much as a student. I had to ensure that no high school student went to college unprepared to face whatever Israel climate existed on their future campus. After all, the best way to proactive on campus is to start in the high schools. If we prepare high school students for Israel on campus before they even get there, we are putting out a fire before it has even started! I have proudly served as the Executive Director of High School Affairs at StandWithUs for the past five years, and I can credit my career choice to the time that I spent on my Masa Israel program and at Tel Aviv University 100%.
The StandWithUs high school department concentrates its efforts on educating high school students from all backgrounds about Israel – the country’s beauty, the conflict, the culture, and so much more. Our goal is to ensure that teens have a connection to Israel and that they are prepared to be leaders for Israel on campus. Via programming, materials, mentorship, and fellowships, StandWithUs has been at the forefront of Israel education at the high school level for five years now. It took anti-Semitism on campus and life changing year abroad at Tel Aviv University to ignite my passion for Israel education and advocacy, and I’m thrilled that I get to make a difference in the lives of the next generation of leaders for Israel. It wasn't an easy path, but the journeys that lead to the best places never are.
Thanks, Eema (mom in Hebrew), for being an incredible role model and a true leader for Israel! I’m so lucky to have followed in your footsteps and to be your daughter!
Written by Miri Kornfeld, Tel Aviv University Alumna ’10