Alisha Deluty

Alisha Deluty

Ben Gurion University of the Negev
 
While helping female Bedouin teenagers prepare for English college entrance exams at Masa Israel’s Ben Gurion University (BGU) in the Negev in August 2008, I met Nesma. In the coming weeks, I tutored Nesma in English by using Hebrew and Arabic to explain English vocabulary or grammatical constructions. Despite our religious, cultural, and national differences, Nesma and I developed a friendship. As we spoke Hebrew, Arabic, and English, Nesma and I soon learned about each other’s lives and families, mine in New York City and hers in a small Bedouin village near Be’er Sheva.
 
Nesma and I engaged in the type of dialogue that I have strived to cultivate for my entire life. Growing up, my parents instilled in me a conviction in fostering tolerance and respect amongst peoples. As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, the stories of my grandparents’ hardships in Nazi Europe have always resonated with me. In college at Columbia University in the joint program with the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), I studied different cultures in my major of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, while taking an array of courses in the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, and Jewish history.
 
When I began thinking about studying abroad in Israel during my sophomore year, I knew that I wanted to be immersed in Israeli culture and society. I decided to go to Ben-Gurion University with the assistance of a Masa Israel Journey grant. At BGU, I lived in the university dorms with Israeli students and participated in student activities on campus. I explored Be’er Sheva and was mesmerized by the unique qualities of the city. One day, my friends and I decided to go to the Bedouin livestock market, where live sheep and goats are sold. The livestock market, which takes place before sunrise, was not the destination of choice for most tourists, or for any Israeli Jews for that matter. As soon as we got there, I could not believe what I saw. Standing around a small bonfire, there were Bedouin men and young boys getting ready to trade their animals. There was not a single woman or non-Bedouin in sight. Although I felt out of place, it was an incredible event that could only have occurred in Be’er Sheva.
 
I left Be’er Sheva just as the war in Gaza was beginning. While packing, I heard helicopters overhead as injured soldiers were being transported from Gaza to Soroka Hospital, which was next to my dorm. At that moment, I had not yet realized that war had broken out. Two days after I came home, I learned that the neighborhood in Be’er Sheva where I spent Rosh Hashana had been bombed, and a few days later the fence of my dormitory was also hit. The university was closed for more than a week, and my friends who were still in Be’er Sheva had to spend several nights in bomb shelters. It was difficult to separate myself from everything that was going on in Be’er Sheva once I was back in New York. I still felt like Be’er Sheva was my home since I had lived there for five months, and I continued to feel a deep connection with the community there.
 
I do not believe that I would be where I am today without the semester that I spent at Ben-Gurion University. During my very first week in the Negev, I learned about trust as I took part in a night hike, trekking through the vast desert with the moon as my only guiding light. But more than anything, I learned about myself. I asked a Bedouin man at the Bedouin shuk how much a tapestry cost in Arabic and gave directions to an Israeli woman on the street in Hebrew. I studied the history of the Negev with students from all over America, Mexico, and Europe. After dancing in the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem on Simchat Torah, I sat on a rooftop and heard the Muslim call to prayer while listening to the bells from a nearby church.
 
After I graduated from Columbia/JTS, I am now interning at OneVoice Movement. OneVoice looks to the future and facilitates dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians to envision a two-state solution. I have no doubt that my experiences at BGU will continue to guide me as I embark on the next stage of my life.

Eric Winter

Eric Winter

Arava Institute for Environmental Studies
 
Growing up in Rochester, New York, I have always been attracted to nature. During school, I found myself staring at the landscape and during services at Temple Sinai, I recall watching birds and trees from the skylights.
 
Having lived in a large Jewish community before enrolling at Allegheny College to study environmental science, I was surprised to find only 40 people present at a Hillel brunch, but happy that one of those individuals was Eric Pallant, professor of environmental science. In addition to explaining that Israel’s environmental problems and solutions can be viewed as a case study for the United States to deal with its own environmental issues, he encouraged students to study abroad at Masa Israel Journey’s Arava Institute for Environmental Science in Israel. There, Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis and others live in a community and work towards solving the Middle Eastern conflict by helping to ameliorate regional environmental issues.
 
Early on, it was clear that I would study abroad at Arava. The idea of living in the desert for five months, only a short distance from Egypt and Jordan, and working with top-notch researchers was very appealing to me. Nestled in the southern Negev Desert, Arava is located on the progressive, pluralistic Kibbutz Ketura. On a regular day, students at Arava take courses in which they confront environmental issues first-hand, including the unsustainable use of water through industrialized agriculture, take part in communal meals with the rest of the kibbutz, explore the desert and have late-night discussions about regional issues and cultural differences. On Shabbat, there are beautiful services filled with richly chanted prayers that are reminiscent of those at my home congregation.
 
Some of my most positive experiences at Arava took place at the Peace Building and Environmental Leadership course, which provided a safe space for students to come together and discuss the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, listen to each other’s ideas and opinions, and occasionally hear insights from Arab or Jewish leaders. Under the guidance of Uri Gordon, we learned how to direct our environmental activism productively, communicate with officials and mobilize within existing systems. Just two days after Operation “Cast Lead,” the Israeli, Arab and American students rallied together to protest the operation, having decided on three slogans that best expressed our feelings that although Israel had a right to respond to the kassams, its use of fighter jets was unjust. At Arava, I learned more about the Palestinian perspective, while I reflected on the struggles of young Israeli Defense Force members.
 
I started to realize that so many people are ensnared by monumental structures that define the conflict such as the separation wall, check points, religious views, water issues and other environmental issues that transcend borders. From my work at Arava it became clear that there are extraordinary people who are constantly pushing forward towards resolutions and attempting to break the barriers that shape the conflict.
 
Upon my return to the United States, I have worked actively on campus to express the Israeli and Palestinian narrative to other students. Still deeply affected by Operation “Cast Lead” when I returned to the school, I created “Roots,” a sculptural art piece that depicted the hasty decision made by Israel to respond aggressively to kassams and its potential effect on future generations. After almost a year, I have chosen to focus on those who work towards solving the conflict in another art installation entitled, “Under Shadows,” which works to convey the simultaneous normalcy and tension of life in Israel amidst conflict. Everyday people are confined physically, mentally, socially and spiritually by history, binding beliefs and unrest. Yet, at Arava, I learned that these same people often become extraordinary, pushing forward towards resolution, attempting to break the barriers that shape the conflict.

Carly Fox

Carly Fox

Hebrew University of Jerusalem
It was Sunday at 10 AM. I woke up that morning with a start – why had my alarm gone off so early on a Sunday morning? I quickly remembered that it was the first day of Ulpan, and I knew that having classes on Sunday was something that was going to take a while to get used to. After meeting a new friend in the lobby of my building in K’far Ha’Studentim (the Student Village), we began walking. About 10 seconds later though, I stopped. I looked straight ahead , completely speechless. In front of me was the Jerusalem skyline with the golden Dome of the Rock in the center. With its postcard-esque beauty, my friend and I stood and stared for a few minutes. I could not take my eyes off the beauty and serenity of the sight in front of me. At that moment I could not describe what I was feeling, but I knew that I was home…
 
Over the next few months, while studying at Masa Israel's Hebrew University, it seemed as if almost everyday I had one of those breathtaking moments. Whether it was praying with hundreds of other women at the Kotel, sitting at a café in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the shuk, sitting on the swing in a park near Emek Refaim, hiking in the hills, or walking in the Old City during a sunset, I never got over the beauty of Jerusalem. 
 
I had been to Israel before. My family had taken trips, and I had participated on three different teen trips in high school and while a student at Syracuse University. My semester abroad in Jerusalem was my seventh time in Israel. And yet, everything seemed so new. On my previous trips we spent a lot of the time on buses, quickly trying to see the whole country in a short amount of time. Having five months in the country, I knew I did not want to rush through anything. I wanted to really see Israel. I wanted to really learn Israel. I wanted to experience Israel culturally, spiritually, and socially. When Israelis or other tourists asked how long I was visiting for, I proudly answered, “I live here.” And for those five months, Israel was my home. I learned that the 19 and the 4aleph buses would get me downtown the quickest. I learned which shuk vendors to go to for which fruits and vegetables. I learned how to converse with people on the street in Hebrew, and I could even help tourists find their ways downtown. 
 
What struck me most about Jerusalem was the passion people had throughout the city. People were passionate about their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People were passionate about their prayer and religious opportunities. People were passionate about understanding the history of the land on which we were standing. The people I met during my time in Israel shared their passion with me. I had no idea then, but nine of the most passionate people I met would become my best friends. We stayed up late talking for hours about these passions – our love for Judaism, our love for Israel’s culture, holiday celebrations, our ulpan classes, an interesting site we had seen that day, and so on. The passions were endless, and yet the things we all were most passionate about were our friendships with each other, the fact that Israel had become our home, and the question of when we would return.
 
On our last night in Jerusalem, we went to our favorite falafel shop on Mount Scopus. We brought our falafels back to Kfar HaStudentim, and sat on the grass. While we ate, we reflected on the semester that had just passed. We sat there talking and reminiscing for hours. And as the sun set, I looked into the skyline that I had seen on the first day of classes with the Dome of the Rock shining in the center. And just as I had done on that day, again I stopped talking and just looked ahead of me into the beauty of Jerusalem. I knew that because of the beauty and passion I had found in Jerusalem, I would be a different person when I returned to the United States. During the course of five months, I had learned, I had grown, and I had strengthened my love for Israel. 
 
Seven months later, my nine friends and I gathered for a reunion over winter break. Of course, we found a Mediterranean restaurant and practiced our Hebrew with the waiters there. Being together, it was as if we had never been apart. We shared stories about our semesters in college, but mostly reminisced about the great times we had during our Masa Israel semester in Israel. And as I looked around the table, I knew that this image of my friends, just like the skyline of Jerusalem, was one that would stay with me forever. The beauty of Jerusalem had been brought to the U.S. through our memories, our pictures, and the experiences we shared.

Marla Davis

Marla Davis

Hebrew University of Jerusalem
 
Throughout my life, my family concluded our Passover Seder in Youngstown, Ohio with the traditional words “Next year in Jerusalem!” It took me twenty years, but finally I found my way to Jerusalem and studied at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School.
 
After taking the course Culture and Contemporary Israel my freshman year at The Ohio State University, I changed my academic career and began studying the Hebrew language. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the best way to fully grasp the language was to study in Israel. Although all the university programs in Israel have their unique benefits, I felt that Jerusalem was the heart of the land I loved, and I yearned to spend time exploring the city’s walls and its people. 
 
What I experienced in Jerusalem will always stand as some of the most incredible memories of my life. I spent days mastering Hebrew in Ulpan in addition to taking courses ranging from Ethiopian Jewish history to peace transition and reconciliation. While all of my classes at Hebrew University deepened my passion for Jewish knowledge, one highlight of my experience was my class with Professor Maya Kahanoff. She brought leaders from peace organizations into our classroom to discuss the work they were doing to help reconcile the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Being able to discuss the conflict in a safe educational environment with a close group of peers gave me an opportunity to use critical thinking skills and expand my perspective. Without a doubt, Professor Kahanoff’s class helped me grow into a more thoughtful, open-minded person.
 
Another amazing opportunity in Jerusalem is the student group Advocates for Asylum. The group of Hebrew University students provides English language classes and translates the Sudanese refugee’s testimonies into English. These men and woman, who had been through so much hardship in life, were the most grateful and friendly people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Spending two evenings a week with the refugees and my fellow teachers became some of the most rewarding enjoyable times I had overseas.
 
Although I could write forever about all the amazing experiences I encountered while living in Jerusalem, the journey wouldn’t be complete without the amazing friends I spent time with in and around the city. During our five months, we prepared potluck Shabbat dinners, hiked both up north and in the Negev, danced, swam, laughed, and ran to catch the last Egged bus. There is something to be said for finding friends that feel like family when you are so far away from home. They helped me grow into the best version of myself, and to this day I hold the time we spent together as some of the happiest, richest moments of my life.
 
Since returning home from Jerusalem, I have participated in many wonderful opportunities. Last year I became a Masa Israel intern for Ohio State University. Together with the help of OSU’s Hillel I assisted students in helping them find the right Masa Israel program and informed them of the grants available to them. It was delightful to hear when someone made the decision to travel to Israel, and the internship prepared me for my current job at the Columbus Jewish Federation as Israel Experience Coordinator. In addition to my professional involvement in the Jewish community, my love for dialogue hasn’t diminished with the end of my stay in Jerusalem. I participate in and lead a Beyond the Conflict book club in the Columbus area where people are given a safe space to discuss their feelings about the current situation in the Middle East in hope that with time people will be capable of humanizing the perceived “enemy.” 
 
I found that when I came home from Jerusalem, I was a more confident and mature than before I left. Living in Jerusalem was challenging, exciting, and most of all rewarding. I came home with a deep sense of appreciation for all the people who work so hard to bring peace to the region and also for the wonderful people from multiple organizations that work to keep Jews connected to their homeland.

Rosa Stall

Rosa Stall

Hebrew University of Jerusalem
 
“Why would you ever choose Jerusalem over Tel Aviv?” a representative asked me at McGill’s meeting for students studying abroad at Israeli universities. At the time, I had no response. I had never even considered Tel Aviv University. The representative proceeded to tell me how much more fun Tel Aviv was than Jerusalem, and how it was a “city that never sleeps, a city where the party never ends.” But, after being here in Israel for five months, I know that when I am in Tel Aviv I can forget I am in Israel; but when I am in Jerusalem, I never forget where I am.
 
My experiences at Hebrew University and living in Jerusalem have both confused and solidified my Jewish identity. The first time I came to Israel with my family in 2004, I landed in Ben Gurion Airport, expecting to feel something, but I did not. Israel is a beautiful country, but to my 13-year-old self it was no more special to me than any other place I had visited.
 
This past January I arrived in Jerusalem, a city that I have spent very little time in the past. For the first few weeks, I felt complete culture shock. Being a Jew from Toronto I could not help but feel out of place in the sea of Orthodoxy that can encapsulate Jerusalem. Yet as the weeks passed, I started to really enjoy living in Jerusalem. As a Canadian who loves waiting in lines and appreciates order, I soon became accustomed to the bustling shuk and the benefits of chaos. Yet, even though I experienced a greater appreciation for the country, I still did not feel more connected to my Jewish identity.
 
All that changed for me on March 23rd, 2011 at 3:00 when I received frantic phone calls from friends asking if I was okay; a bomb had exploded near the central bus station. Two days later I was supposed to run the 10 km race for Jerusalem’s first-ever marathon and I had heard rumours that it would be canceled. The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat stated in response to the rumours that ”when terror attempts to disrupt our way of life, the best solution is to get back to normal as quickly as possible. Events in Jerusalem will not be cancelled and Jerusalem will not stop running.” 
 
As planned, my friends and I headed to Gan Sacher, the starting area of the race, on March 25th. As I ran down the streets of Jerusalem, next to the Knesset, up Ben Yehuda, through the Old City, and across the finish line, I felt a sense of pride. I felt proud of the country and proud to be Jewish for the first time since I have been in Israel. This must be the feeling, I thought, that people speak of when they speak of their connection to Israel. Lining the streets of the race were people of all denominations and from all places. Only two days after the bombing, everyone came to cheer the runners on to show their pride and support for Jerusalem. It did not matter if I was secular, religious or something else. The Jerusalem people cheered and supported me. I was cheered for and supported by the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 
 
I may not have this feeling everyday when I wake up in Jerusalem and I may not feel it for long, but if I can remember my recent experience then I will remember what it means to be Jewish in Israel. As I start counting down the days to my return home to Toronto I catch myself thinking about how my relationship to Israel has changed and what my connection will be upon my return home. I may not always agree with Israel’s policies and I may not always enjoy being cut in line, but I suspect that Israel will always be an important piece of my Jewish identity. 

Alana Gardner

Alana Gardner

Hebrew University of Jerusalem
 
As a junior at Indiana University, Silver Spring-native Alana Gardner decided to study abroad at the Masa Israel-accredited Hebrew University. "I'd been to Israel before but I wanted to return for a longer period of time," says Alana. "I also wanted the experience of living in one place in Israel without traveling all the time."
 
With an accredited program at Hebrew University, Indiana University made this simple for Alana. While at Hebrew University, Alana, a business major, took elective courses that interested her, including Hebrew, modern Jewish philosophy, and Judaism and the environment. 
 
Outside of class, Alana spent her time getting to know Jerusalem. “Being there every day and exploring on my own without someone showing me around really allowed me to connect with Jerusalem,” she says. Her favorite time of the week was Shabbat when she was able to immerse herself in her new environment by enjoying home hospitality. “Eating meals at different families’ home was incredible,” she says. “I was able to see so many different neighborhoods that I might not have found on my own and meet so many different people with completely different lifestyles.”
 
On one Shabbat, her hosts invited her to a Carlebach service that had an atmosphere unlike others Alana had previously experienced. “People showed a lot of spirit not just in their praying, but in all of their interactions,” Alana says. “There was a real sense of community. People wanted to know my story and tell me their stories. Even though I’d only known them for a brief period of time, I felt like I’d known them forever.”
 
This warmth was something that Alana greatly appreciated. “A friend of a friend would be going to a Shabbat meal and then I’d be told to come as well,” she says. “People not only invited me into their homes, but they made it clear that they really wanted me to be there.”
 
The welcome that Alana received in Israel made her feel like she truly had a place in the country. “Israel is where all Jews are welcomed no matter what,” she says.
 
When Alana returned to the United States, the sense of openness she experienced in Israel stayed with her. “My experiences in Israel definitely expanded my social boundaries,” she says. “I’ve become more open when talking to different kinds of people. Because of the diverse communities in Jerusalem, I now like getting to know people who aren’t just like me.”
 
Today, Alana is also more invested in Israel on a day-to-day basis, often bringing Israel up in conversation and following it on the news. This summer, Alana is looking forward to returning to Israel for a few weeks and then settling into her consulting job at Deloitte in Washington, DC. “I’m excited to live in a new city and find a synagogue,” she says. “I’m looking forward to getting involved in the Jewish community.”

Jenelle Rotenberg

Jenelle Rotenberg

Tel Aviv University
Name: Jenelle Rotenberg
Hometown: La Canada, CA
College: UC San Diego
Major: Communications
Minor: American Sign Language
Program: Tel Aviv University OSP
 
How did you decide that going to Israel was the right option for you?
After my trip to Israel with Birthright, I fell absolutely in love with the country and felt an automatic connection. Upon my return home, I started getting more involved on campus with the issue revolving around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and trying to change the negative campus climate surrounding it. I then unmistakably withdrew from the University of Melbourne and applied to Tel Aviv University.
 
How did you choose Tel Aviv University?
I chose Tel Aviv University because I felt that the challenging academics and the amazing location would make for an exceptional experience.
 
What are you hoping to get out of this semester?
To become proficient in Hebrew, make some new friends, get a better understanding of the issues encompassing Israel, and get a tan!
 
What are you looking forward to the most?
Traveling the country and picking up on Israeli culture.
 
What are you nervous about?
Not having enough time to do everything I want to do while I am in Israel.
 
What Israeli food are you hoping to eat a lot of during your semester in Israel?
SHWARMA and rugala

Hannah Schafer

Hannah Schafer

Arava Institute for Environmental Studies
While growing up in the United States, Hannah Schafer learned of the struggles that Israelis faced each day during the Second Intifada and wished she could help.  After focusing on environmental studies in college, Hannah decided to spend a year studying at the Arava Institute in Israel.  Her studies at Arava, which included projects to improve the environment and conflict-resolution activities with Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli, and North American students were instrumental in making Hannah feel like she could make a difference in Israel—both as an environmentalist and as a Jew.  "All of a sudden, I could participate in solving Israel’s problems in a way that was personal," Hannah says.  
 
One of Hannah’s most meaningful experiences at the Arava Institute occurred during the end of her environmental law course. For their final project in the course, Hannah and her fellow students researched the effect of Eilat fish-growing cages on coral reefs.  While some students were assigned to prosecute the fish-cage companies, others were assigned to defend them;  assigned to the companies’ defense, Hannah traveled to Eilat to meet with one case company’s managers and workers in order to gain a wider perspective on the issue.  “It just so happened that several kibbutzim owned the company I was assigned to, and many of the kibbutzniks consider themselves to be big environmentalists,” Hannah says, explaining the complexity of the situation.  The project culminated in a mock trial and made Hannah realize that there was an abundance of environmental work to pursue in Israel.
 
A few years after completing her studies at the Arava Institute, Hannah returned to Israel and began working for Zalul, an environmentally-focused non-profit that works to protect and maintain clean water in Israel.  As a result of her studies at Arava, Hannah arrived in Israel fully prepared to help Zalul in its work to protect coral reefs.
 
Hannah believes that environmental work can bring about significant change in Israel.  "Here, the environmental situation is 10 to 15 years behind that of the United States,” Hannah says.  “In Israel, I can do more with my knowledge and skills than I could in America."
 
Arava also made Hannah realize that environmental work in Israel is a conduit for peace in the Middle East. "Everyone has a common goal when it comes to the environment," Hannah says.  "Nature has no borders. A contaminated river that flows in Israel not only pollutes Israel, but it also flows through the West Bank and disrupts the Arabs’ lives. We all live in one world, physically undivided by political lines."

Shana Dorfman

Shana Dorfman

Otzma
Age: 23 
Hometown: Santa Rosa, California, USA
Program: OTZMA
Hobbies: Writing & running
 
How did you get to OTZMA?
I was on Birthright in January of that year, 2006, and I was in Haifa with my aunt, and she was an adoptive mother for a participant, and she introduced me to her and she told me about the program, so that's how I found out.
 
How much family do you have here?
My dad's whole family lives here, they all made Aliyah in the 60s and 70s.  All his cousins and aunts and uncles.
 
Had you been to Israel before Birthright?
Well, as a baby, but that doesn’t count.
 
And you liked your Birthright experience?
Yeah, I loved it. It was so much fun.
 
Do you remember your first impressions of living here when you were on OTZMA?
I thought Israel was absolutely ridiculous, it's kind of like America but backwards, kind of, I guess. I don’t know, I loved it and I loved that people would invite us over for dinner all the time, that always happens, and I liked the cultural differences, like the food and the bus experience and it's just different. I don’t remember what it's like now because it's so natural to me because I've been here so long.
 
What are the main differences between living here and your experience on Birthright?
I mean, we actually saw Israelis on OTZMA. On birthright you're surrounded by Americans and you see them everywhere. And then when you come back and your actual self-conception is changed from a tourist to actually living here, it's different because you see Americans on the street and you don’t feel like you have something in common anymore, because they're a tourist but you live here, so that's different. On birthright we'd always see other Americans and we'd be like "ooh, where are you from?" and when you're on OTZMA and you see other Americans you just pretend that you're not like them, because it's so different. I don’t know, you take your time more with experiencing Israel because you know you're going to be here a while, it's just different.
 
Do you remember any big moments of culture shock?
Yeah, my cousin took me to a wedding. I knew that Israeli weddings were supposed to be orthodox, so I was expecting like an orthodox synagogue and a service. And it was a DJ running the whole thing and there were fireworks and confetti and a dance floor and alcohol all over the place. The whole thing was absolutely nuts and I was obsessed with Israeli weddings after that, I want to have one.
 
What do you think you did right at the beginning of your program?
I focused on ulpan. I pretty much skipped volunteering just to really work on my Hebrew, and that helped me a lot for the rest of the year. Like, being in Kiryat Shmonah and being able to communicate with people at stores was just really, really helpful for me because I didn’t know any Hebrew when I got here.  So I'm glad that I came here and actually took my Hebrew lessons seriously.
 
Can you think of anything that you would do differently?
Looking back, I wish I had taken more initiative from the very beginning, just to make a difference. Because, you're in OTZMA, and you're there to do community service and to really try to help people and to use your skills to your advantage, and it's so easy to get caught up in enjoying Israel and enjoying the people around you, that you sometimes forget why you originally came here. And I feel like I came here with a lot of experiences in other jobs that I could have applied to being here.
 
Like when I was in college I helped teach this Toastmasters public speaking class and I could have used that to help other kids with public speaking, and we eventually did a speech competion in Kiryat Shmonah, but it could have been something that we worked on the entire time, instead of just pulling it together the last few weeks that we were there.  I like writing and I could have actually worked with newsletters from home or something and gotten my writing out there but I didn’t, just that kind of thing. It's hard to think of that when you're caught up with everything else. I wish I had done that.
 
How would you describe the relationship our friends and fellow program participants have had with Israel?
I don't want to get political. One thing I’ve noticed with American Jews is we're taught to love Israel and be Zionists and to love it unconditionally, and you get here and you see all the great things and you sometimes ignore the negative sides of Israel. Maybe you'll see that certain groups are prejudiced against in this country and you make excuses for it, or ignore it, or talk about the wars and the way certain people are treated and you try not to think about it because you want to love Israel, and I think what a lot of Diaspora Jews miss out on is the fact that it's important to be critical of Israel but at the same time love it, and a lot of people just completely miss that and I'm kind of fascinated by how that works and how Zionism is going to change in the coming years to reflect that.
 
As far as relating to Israelis, I think that it's kind of hard for Jews in America to come here and meet Israelis who are Jewish and don't act the way that we consider to be Jewish. Like I have a friend who I worked with who is from a kibbutz and he was telling me that on Yom Kippur he makes it a point to eat pork. And it's such a Jewish thing to do here because that's certain people's way of standing up against religion but still being Jewish at the same time. And if I were to go back and do that in the States, that would be so not Jewish at all, like there's no way to make that a Jewish act. So it's kind of funny to see the differences between our cultures and trying to talk to Israelis about that sort of thing.
 
How would you describe your Jewish background?
I was raised going to a Reconstructionist synagogue, and that's where I had my Bat Mitzvah, and then my parents went to Reform after that, but only on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana. We didn't go, ever. We would go through phases where we did Shabbat for a few months at a time and then we'd forget about it. I mean, everyone in my family is atheist, everyone is not into tradition. I never really had any Jewish friends until college.  I didn’t have a strong Jewish background at all. I went to camp though – Camp Tawonga, it's in California. It's like a hippie, outdoorsy camp, so I got that. It's a Jewish camp. I always knew I was Jewish and I identified with it and I was pretty active in Hillel in college, but not the religious side of it. I'm more of a cultural Jew.
 
How did being in Israel affect your Jewish identity?
I always knew that there's more than one way to be Jewish and you don’t have to be religiously Jewish, and you can be culturally also, but I think being here just reinforced it just because you see so many people who are completely secular and yet they still are very, very Jewish, and you can tell they are in the way they act.  It's just making me think about how I want to practice Judaism when I get home, and I'm realizing that I don’t have to be religious or go to synagogue or anything, like I don’t even know if I'm going to go to high holy days this year, but there are other ways of being Jewish. I kind of like the Israeli way of it more.
 
Do you have staple traditions or observances that you do in order to maintain your Jewish identity? Is it easier for you to be Jewish in Israel?
Yeah, for sure, because when you're in America and Yom Kippur rolls around, if you don’t go to services, that's such a non-Jewish act in itself because all the Jews are going to be in services, why aren't you? But if you're here, there are Jews who go and there are Jews who don't. Just because you don't go that doesn’t mean you're not Jewish, it just means you're a different kind of Jew. It's harder to have different kinds of Judaism in the States, I think, than it is here.
 
What are the main things you’ve learned from this experience?
I don’t know, the whole year is just one big learning experience, like I didn’t really know that much about Israel before I got here, like I had read a couple books about it and I have so much family here, but I still didn’t know really about it, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you what daily life is like. And now I've experienced it and I can put together a map of Israel, I know where everything is because I've been there. You’re always learning here.
 
Do you consider yourself to be a different person?
Yeah, for sure. It's impossible to be here for a year without growing in some way. It'll be interesting when I get back to see how my friends react.  I feel like I've gotten more Israeli, and more blunt. I feel like, my uncle always said that it was really annoying when he would meet me or my brother because we were taught to be very diplomatic about everything, and when you're here you don’t beat around the bush, you just get right to the point. I feel like I've learned to be more like that just from being here. And I think I'm more independent – I mean I was independent when I got here because I had already been through 4 years of college, but not to the point of being in a foreign country and being able to navigate my way around it without really knowing the language.
 
What are your plans for when you back?
I'm going to study for the GRE and apply to graduate school and hopefully not look for work, because I don’t really want to get a job yet.
 
How do you plan to stay involved with Jewish issues and Israel?
Indirectly, like I'm not going to go back and work for a federation or for Hillel, but through writing or anthropology research I think I want to stay involved just because I find it really interesting. The Jerusalem Post asked me to do a blog for them, which should be interesting. Whatever I do, I want it to relate to Israel in some way, for example, if I'm writing or doing research, because I'm really interested specifically in the relationship between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews.  But I'm trying not to think about the future yet.
 
Was the interest there before you came here?
I came here to figure out what I want to do with my life, I didn’t know anything, I thought I wanted to go to graduate school in sociology. So it's kind of related, I knew I wanted to study some kind of group of people but I didn't really know what. I didn’t think I'd get that involved, I thought I'd find some fascination with poverty, or something normal that people do research on. But I just think Israelis are really cool

Safety and security

Safety and security

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