Joel Portman

Joel Portman

Ben Gurion University
In 2005 I traveled to Poland and Israel with United Synagogue Youth (USY). The five weeks I spent in Israel were some of the best of my life. But it wasn't enough. I wanted more and I knew I would have to return.
 
I spent five months studying at Masa Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev from the end of July to the end of December 2008. I attend the University of Denver where approximately 70% of the undergraduate students study abroad – so I knew I would be spending part of junior year in another country. What country that would be was an easy choice. I knew that I had to be in Israel. The question was which school. My options were pretty limited because of the University of Denver’s quarter schedule. Nevertheless, I knew that there were ways to get around this.
 
I was trying to decide between Hebrew University in Jerusalem or Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. I wanted to have the opportunity to explore Judaism while experiencing the “real” Israel. I wanted to learn Hebrew and I knew that English was pervasive in Jerusalem. Much to the surprise of almost everyone I knew, I chose Ben-Gurion. It ended up being a phenomenal choice.
 
I loved every minute of classes at Ben-Gurion. Be’er Sheva is an amazing city, regardless of what anyone says. The people are amazing. Our first night there, about 30 lost Americans stood on the street corner trying to figure out where we were and how we could find someplace close by to eat. A student came up and offered to make us pancakes. We got to know him well over the next several months. This was only one of the very meaningful things that happened to me in Beer Sheva.
 
At home now in St. Louis, Missouri for the summer, I have been experiencing an extremely hot and humid few months. The heat is familiar from Be’er Sheva, but not the humidity. St. Louis is missing the sand though--which really gives the city some character. The other day I was working in a building looking out at the sun and blue skies. Someone mentioned spending time at the pool over the weekend and I flashed back to the days of , when we would spend the afternoons at the pool, across from Mayonot Gimel. We would swim, tan, or play volleyball and matkot (Israeli paddleball) with the Israeli students. We were always welcomed and we began to feel part of the Israeli society.
 
Back in Denver, I began to get involved in Israel advocacy and programming with student groups and formed relationships with StandWithUs and other organizations. I took classes on the Israeli-Arab conflict and wrote my honors thesis on Israeli communities rising from discrimination to power. As part of a liberal international studies program, I often found myself defending Israel, but I was always happy to do it. I had immediately been a part of the controversy mix, returning to the United States just before my Israeli dorms were evacuated after being hit by a rocket from Gaza. (Thankfully, there were no injuries.)
 
I knew that I would not be able to see everything that I had wanted to see during my five months. I knew I would want to go back. What was surprising though was how much of Be’er Sheva I did not experience. Sure, I traveled and explored, but I always figured, “Be’er Sheva only has 200,000 people. How much can there be here to do?” Apparently, a lot. I always said I would return to visit those small museums, but never did. Hard as I knew it would be, I wanted to get up early on a Thursday morning to go to the animal auction at the Bedouin Market. I missed it. That is my only regret.
 
My Masa Israel experience was amazing. I would never have given it up for anything. Now, I know that I need to return. I hope to do so this December (when I can once again eat way too many sufganiyot! – jelly donuts). Until then, I will think of Israel often.

Amy Oppenheimer

Amy Oppenheimer

University of Haifa
Program: 
As a Jewish day school graduate, Israel always felt like a second home to me. When I created the documentary, Faces of Israel: A Discussion about Marriage, State and Religion in the Jewish Homeland during my Masa Israel semester abroad at the University of Haifa, I was able to explore the complicated way Israelis relate to their home. 
 
Before my semester in Israel, I saw Israel as the setting of the Torah, the place where I could track my people’s ancient history. Then, at Johns Hopkins, where I became involved with the interfaith group on campus, I began to realize that Israel was much more multifaceted than I could ever imagine. As I studied International Relations, Jewish Studies, and Arabic, I armed myself with the tools to dig deeper and uncover other sides of Israel. 
 
At the University of Haifa, where Muslims, Jews, Christians, Druze, Arabs and Israelis coexist together in peace, I developed close friendships with Israeli Jews and Arabs. In our conversations, we continuously returned to the meaning of democracy within a Jewish state. It was a tense topic, and increasingly so when compacted with the issue of love. I learned that it is during the marriage process, through interaction with the State rabbinate, that most Israelis first personally confront the issues that a Jewish democracy poses. 
 
Exploring this topic with different people, I witnessed an endless passion for discussing the complicated nature of the State. Though not a cinematographer, I knew that the only way to highlight the intensity of this emphatic debate was through film. I had never before taken a film class, but decided to set out for the Haifa mall to purchase film equipment and began asking people about their views on democracy in a Jewish state – on camera. 
 
These diverse interviews—which featured Israeli Jews with different backgrounds and beliefs—evolved into the seeds of a documentary, Faces of Israel. Praised and endorsed by a wide spectrum of Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Basil Herring from the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Gordon Tucker from the Masorti movement, Rabbi David Ellenson from Hebrew Union College and Blu Greenberg from the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, the film was released in 2009 in Riverdale. Now, it is being screened nationwide. 
 
Classically, college exposes young adults to new and complicated viewpoints that are difficult to synthesize. By spending a semester abroad with Masa Israel at the University of Haifa, I was able to find ground for my new ideas to flourish. Since then, my understanding of Israel and my connection to Israel have deepened and matured. 

Andrew Apt

Andrew Apt

Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Andrew Apt first traveled to Israel with his Jewish Day School’s eighth grade class but didn’t think about returning until his Birthright trip during college. “The trip went by so fast and I suddenly realized how many questions I still had,” says Andrew. “I knew the only way to solve this was to go back for a longer period of time.”
 
As a junior at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, Andrew decided to study abroad at Hebrew University. “I’m a huge history buff so I knew I had to be in Jerusalem,” says Andrew. “Just walking up and down the streets, I felt how much history there was to uncover.” His university didn’t make it easy for him, though. It was during the Second Lebanon War and Andrew had to take a leave of absence in order to spend his junior year in Israel and then enroll again when he returned. But, it didn’t stop Andrew, who says, “I felt like there was something pushing me to go. The idea of not going didn’t make sense.”
 
In Israel, Andrew enrolled in an intensive Hebrew ulpan, and as many experiential history courses as possible, including one focused on archeology and another on the second temple period which had field trips throughout the country, “I definitely didn’t just want to just be sitting in a classroom while learning about everything that was around me,” he says.
 
Immersing himself in the country taught him a lot about the real Israel—including how falsely it is portrayed in the American media. “When I first landed, I remember going to this falafel place on French Hill and watching Al Manar news alongside Arabs and Jews. The memory stands out for me because not only were Israelis and Palestinians watching “the enemy’s” media in the capital of the Jewish state, but they were doing so peacefully,” says Andrew. “Then I saw the American news and it seemed like the world was about to end.”
 
His time in Israel also led him to adopt some Israeli behavior. “At first I experienced a bit of culture shock when I came into contact with pushy Israelis,” he says. On his first bus ride from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Andrew didn’t make it into the bus and his friends had to wait for him to arrive half an hour later. “I realized that I couldn’t allow that to happen again and that I, too, had to start pushing my way through.”
 
Upon returning to Kean University, Andrew set out to apply to graduate schools in Jewish education. He was accepted to Hebrew University once again and realized he had no reason not to return. 
 
Arriving with a one-way ticket, Andrew enrolled in courses in pedagogy, educational philosophy, and pluralism in Jewish education. Outside of the classroom he continued his learning by talking to tourists, Birthright participants and Americans living in Israel about their Israel experiences. 
 
During his second year in Israel, Andrew met his current girlfriend, Rebecca Pohl, who was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, another Masa Israel-accredited program. Now back in the United States, they are still able to see each other often. His girlfriend is a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Cantorial School in New York and Andrew works at the United Jewish Communities of Metro West, New Jersey.
 
Having earned a Master’s in Jewish Education, Andrew serves as the Masa Israel Recruitment Coordinator for the Metro West-area and the Coordinator for the Diller Teen Fellows. Focused on Israel, Jewish identity, community service, and leadership, the program helps Jewish teens create their own service projects and then takes them on a three-week immersion trip to Israel. 
 
For Andrew, who spent three of the last four years in Israel, these goals are easy to feel passionate about. “My experiences in Israel were life-changing—they made me who I am today,” says Andrew. “I want to help other people find their Jewish connections and going to Israel is one of the best ways to do that.”

Laura Marder

Laura Marder

University of Haifa
Program: 
 
You know you had an unbelievable study abroad experience when it’s time to leave and you’re in a state of shock because your year flew by, exceeding every single one of your expectations. Sounds too good to be true? Well, this was exactly how I felt at the end of my year at Masa Israel’s University of Haifa program.
 
After my first two years in college, I was ready for a refreshing adventure abroad. I’d just received my associates degree in education as well as my cosmetology license, and soon planned to move on to Rutgers. At that point, I was worried that I’d have to choose a career focused on only one of my passions—cosmetology or Jewish Studies, and wanted to find a way to combine both in my future career. The perfect opportunity came along when the University of Haifa helped me create an internship for college credit where I could use my cosmetology skills at a nearby shelter for battered women.
 
On my first day, I came in quiet and excited with little notion of what lay ahead, and on my last day, I walked out in laughter and tears, with the most beautiful letters and keepsakesfrom the residents in hand. My days there were unlike anything I had ever experienced before. With whatever supplies I had, I gave the women weekly manicures and pedicures, as well as hair treatments, facials, and hand massages for relaxation. I also spent time with their kids, tutoring them in English and practicing my Hebrew.
 
I felt so many different emotions over the course of my internship at the shelter. Sometimes I was furious that the women and children had experienced such harshness, while at other times, I was elated that these women and children had been lucky enough to get second chances in life. During those months, I learned the true meaning of cosmetology—the act of giving another human being a sense of self-worth. With a simple splash of color, a caring touch, and a listening ear, I helped teach women how to respect and love themselves.
 
It was a wonderful day when I walked into the shelter and saw colorful new murals, recently painted by the mothers and their children, covering the outside fences. As I stood admiring how the work made the whole place seem happier, one of the children gave me a hug and told me that I was the inspiration for the mural. Just as I had done, she too hoped to bring color and joy to the shelter. At that moment, I realized that this wasn’t just a college internship. This would give me direction for the rest of my life.
 
I’d traveled to Israel once more since Birthright, but while studying abroad, I finally stopped feeling like a tourist and started feeling like I really belonged. Going to the open-air produce market in Hadar, sharing Shabbat meals with amazingly welcoming families, visiting my own family, wandering ancient streets, and bumping into old friends all made Israel feel like my home.
 
Everyday, I learned both inside and outside of the classroom. In a modern Israeli literature course, I read Blue Mountain and then looked out my window to see the land described in the book. I practiced Hebrew in my Hebrew ulpan course, and then it came alive in daily Hebrew conversations with roommates, counselors and cab drivers.
 
Holidays also brought me closer to the country. On Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day, I stood by the Western Wall as the siren sounded throughout Israel and listened to families speak of loved ones who died while serving the Jewish homeland. As we sang Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, I felt like we were all bound together, as a people, as a country, as a religion, and as a family—all mourning each other’s losses and honoring the soldiers’ immense sacrifices.
 
Following this tearful day came Yom Haazmaut, Israel’s Independence Day—a day when it seemed like everyone was suddenly out on the streets rejoicing with Israeli flags draped from the windows and tied around people’s backs. Parties boomed on every corner and the country was alive and vibrant—so different than the day before. It was then that I was able to understand that Israelis can deal with their national hardship because of their great love and belief in their land, and their mindset of taking one day at a time and always being in the moment.
 
The following weekend, I took part in a Masa Israel-sponsored conference where I was able to share my feelings with other young adults, who felt the exact same way.
 
Back in New Jersey, I finished my degree in Jewish Studies. I also work as a Hebrew school teacher, which allows me to share my passion for Israel and Judaism with others. One day I hope to create a wellness program for young adults in Israel.
 
My Masa Israel journey did not end when I returned to the United States. In fact, the knowledge and passion I gained while in Israel only just got me started.

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.”
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