By Joel Portman, St. Louis – Ben Gurion University of the Negev Overseas Students Program
In 2005 I traveled to Poland and Israel with United Synagogue Youth (USY), one of two Jewish youth groups I was a part of, along with BBYO. 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 the Masa Israel supported program at 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 what 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.
I kept a blog for the summer to share my experiences and stories with anyone who cared to read them. I made the following observations in my first real post:
There are a lot of stray cats (and some dogs) in Be’er Sheva.
The Israeli students are actually finishing up their semester with the next few weeks being their final period. Their schedule got messed up with two different (one professor and one student) strikes this past year. Many of these students will be moving out of the dorms. Their new semester will not begin until mid-November.
The school week in Israel is Sunday – Thursday. It is going to take some getting used to.
These observations seem laughable now that I have spent time in Be’er Sheva and Israel for as long as I did. There were so many meaningful things that happened.
At home now in St. Louis, Missouri for the summer, I have been experiencing an extremely hot and humid summer. The heat is familiar from Be’er Sheva, the humidity, not so much. 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 Ulpan, 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 (don’t worry, 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. See you soon!
Joel Portman is now an MBA student at the University of Denver. He blogs at http://joelportman.wordpress.com