USY to BGU: Staying connected to Israel by studying abroad

 
By Joel Portman, St. Louis, MO, Ben Gurion University of the Negev Year Program
 
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 the experience I’d had wasn’t enough:  I wanted more, and I knew I would have to return. So, in 2008, I spent a semester studying at Masa Israel’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev. And I loved every minute of it.
 
I was a student at the University of Denver when I decided to spend my Junior year abroad in Israel. Seventy percent of the undergraduate students there study abroad – so I knew I would be spending part of Junior year in another country. And choosing where to go was easy for me – I knew I had to be in Israel. The question for me was which university to attend.
 
The choice came down to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. I wanted the opportunity to explore Judaism while experiencing the “real” Israel.  I also wanted to learn Hebrew, and knew that English was pervasive in Jerusalem.  So, 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, as are its people. 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 Be’er Sheva.
 
I’m home now in St. Louis for an extremely hot and humid summer. The heat is familiar after living in Be’er Sheva; the humidity…well, not so much. I miss the sand, which is pervasive in Be’er Sheva and gives the city its character, here in St. Louis. 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 Meonot 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.
 
When I returned to 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’d traveled and explored, but 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.
 

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