International Students // ACADEMIC ADVENTURERS
By Rebecca Kopans
Meet some of the many international students studying on Israeli campuses. They are here on a large variety of academic programs, many of which are in English. Some came for a single semester or year, while others made Aliya and are pursuing an entire degree. So what is it like to study in Israel far from home?
Lechao Tang, Hebrew University, from China
Lechao was the first generation of China's “Family Planning Policy” in the beginning of the 1990's. Being an only child, “I got the privilege of all my Mom’s care and my childhood was embraced by love and poems,” he recalls. One day, his mother taught him a section of Psalms that she had just learned. “I was amazed by the thinking and the language of the ancient Hebrews, and wondered: the Bible is so beautiful in Chinese, how would it be in its original language?”
In an attempt to answer this question, Lechao decided to pursue a B.A. in Judaic Studies and Linguistics at the University of Oregon. To fulfill his childhood dream, he registered for a Hebrew course and, eventually, decided to become a Bible scholar. “The Jewish people’s dedication to learning reminds me of my Mom. Naturally, the next destination after my graduation was Israel, where I could explore more in the Jewish treasury.”
The Hebrew University, which is renowned for its research, seemed like a natural choice. “One important value I deeply identify with is Tikun Olam. Being a Bible student, one is obliged to care about the surrounding society. Here I am immersed in a diverse community that works passionately towards that direction. I see hardworking Arab students sharing classes side-by-side with Jewish ones, discussing issues concerning us all. I talk with Nobel laureates about their studies, learning bit by bit their wisdom... All of these weren't available to me before my arrival here. What I knew before from printed words now becomes alive. I learn with the world's brightest minds, live the true life behind the news, meet people with fascinating life stories and visit the sites where civilization began. Studying here is learning and adventure combined,” enthuses Lechao about his experience in Israel.
He is also captivated by the local culture. “The eco-system encouraging bold thinking is rare in the Chinese education system. In Israel, one is welcome to disagree with teachers or anyone else as long as one is committed to working until getting it right. Failure is permitted by the society as long as one continues to try. In my culture, chutzpah is ridiculed in a generation growing up with a silver spoon in their mouth and distant from ordeals like the early kibbutzniks experienced. I think Chinese educators, parents and students should take the chance to experience some Israeli education,” he declares.
Like most international students who are far from their families, Lechao agrees that the biggest challenge is the distance from home. “I missed all the important festivals where families are supposed to sit together. The Chinese New Year was especially difficult when I could only seek consolation from phone calls and the beautiful photos sent by my loved ones.”
Janika Meissnest, Beit Berl College, from Germany
Janika, who is 21 and from a town near Stuttgart, Germany, is a very brave young woman. A student of Special Needs Education at the University of Education Ludwigsburg, she just completed a semester at Beit Berl College as its one and only exchange student. Janika came to Israel without ever having been here before and without knowing too much about what to expect.
“I wanted to study abroad and the other options were in Europe and Scandinavia. I preferred to experience a different culture and I just thought it would be a good experience,” she notes. She was given a room on campus and the classes at Beit Berl were all in English, but it was still a bit hard in the beginning. “I don’t understand the language and I had to do everything on my own, but everyone is friendly here and I wasn’t lonely at all,” she insists. “Israelis are really open and people helped me.” She made friends from her dorm and from her classes, including both Arab and Jewish Israelis. “I took salsa dancing classes with other students and travelled a lot on the weekends, to Tel Aviv and all over the country.”
So how does Janika summarize her semester in Israel? Well, suffice it to say that she has another two months until her Spring semester begins in Germany and, rather than going straight home, she decided to remain here for two more months. “I will stay on a kibbutz for a while, and then some friends from Germany will arrive and we will travel all over the country together,” she says happily.
Jessica Cohen, IDC Herzliya, from South Africa
Originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, Jessica Cohen made Aliya seven years ago at age 18, straight after high school. “My plan was to right away study at IDC, but during my first year in Israel, I realized that if I wanted to integrate I should go to the army,” she remembers. So she spent the following two years in the IDF, as a guide for Sar-El, a program for foreigners who volunteer in the IDF for three week stints. After finishing her service, Jessica spent time working and travelling around the country, mainly teaching English and volunteering with refugees in south Tel Aviv.
The next stop was IDC, where she is now a third-year Psychology student. “I chose IDC because of its incredible atmosphere. I love that it’s small and intimate. Also, I wanted to study in my own language,” she explains. She lives in Raanana with her family, who also made Aliya in the meantime.
“I have a diverse group of friends,” Jessica says of her social life. “My best friend from South Africa also made Aliya and I also have lots of Israeli friends from the army, and friends from IDC who come from all over the world.” She also met people through her job in an Israeli start-up.
“Although I feel more Israeli now, there are challenges of being in a different culture. I had to learn to be assertive. As a student who works and volunteers as well as studies, I had to learn to manage my time.” Despite her busy schedule, Jessica likes to go out with friends – “I love the Tel Aviv bar culture!” – and really enjoys the local food scene. “It’s great. Everyone is united in their obsession with food.” What does she want to do next? “I hope to get into a Masters program and to move to Tel Aviv,” she says with determination.
Randi Price, Tel Aviv University, from Florida, USA
Randi, who is 24 and originally from Miami, Florida, studies Nursing at Tel Aviv University and lives in Givat Shmuel. She originally arrived in Israel after high school for a gap year at the Migdal Oz seminary, during which she perfected her Hebrew and made lots of Israeli friends. Rather than go back to the US and attend Nursing School at NYU as planned, Randi decided to stay in Israel and do Sherut Leumi (National Service) at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem.
During that year, she decided to make Aliya; she went home for Passover and returned to Israel on a Nefesh B’Nefesh group flight for new olim. The next year, she started studying at Tel Aviv University. “I looked in to different programs, and one of the reasons I chose Tel Aviv is that I could be close to all my friends at Bar-Ilan and be a part of the religious Anglo community of Givat Shmuel,” she explains.
She shares an apartment with three other young, Orthodox American roommates and is active in Givat Shmuel's busy social life. “Givat Shmuel is like a family,” she insists, describing how the close-knit community of young English-speaking students is her Rock of Gibraltar. Still, despite mostly “hanging out with Anglos,” Randi also occasionally socializes with her Israeli classmates and recently she even went to an Escape Room with some of them. Living in Givat Shmuel and studying at Tel Aviv University was a good choice for her, she says. “I now have a big group of people with connections.”
Martin Echwa, Arava Institute, from Kenya
Martin, 29, is currently spending ten months in Israel at the Arava Institute on Kibbutz Ketura. After studying Philosophy and Religious Studies at a university in his native Kenya, he joined the 'Furrows in the Desert' initiative in Kenya’s Turkana region, an agricultural development program based on Israeli expertise in desert agriculture. Its aim is to reduce poverty in the region and to assist the local population in regaining their economic independence. After two years in Turkana, he arrived in Israel in order to deepen his knowledge of sustainable agriculture at the Arava Institute.
Although it’s his first time in Israel, his Israeli friends from 'Furrows in the Desert' prepared him before he arrived, and he knew what to expect. “I’m very happy here,” he says. “They welcomed me in the kibbutz and made me feel at home. People are very hospitable and friendly,” he enthuses, adding that his best friends here are the Israelis he knew from Kenya and that they often invite him to their homes.
In addition to the academic program, which he describes as fascinating, he is also making a point of traveling around the country as much as possible, and lists a dozen places he has already visited, from the Hula Valley and Sea of Galilee in the north to Timna and Uvdat in the south, and of course Jerusalem.
Martin acknowledges that sometimes it can be difficult to be a black person in Israel, yet he thinks that Israelis are exceptionally friendly and have a very strong sense of community. “I like the kibbutz system and the way Israelis love each other and their country. I have learned a lot from them; these are people who transformed the desert,” he notes with admiration. When he will finish the Arava program this summer, Martin will go back to Kenya and apply what he has learned. “I want to help my people,” he reveals.
Aaron Hochman-Zimmerman, Ben Gurion University, from New York, USA
At 36, Aaron is the oldest of the students interviewed for this article, and also one of the most fascinating. He is currently in his second year of Medical School at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, located in Beer Sheva. Prior to starting Medical School, Aaron’s eclectic resumé included studying Public Relations at Syracuse University, enlisting in the U.S. Army as an Air Force cadet, working for an advertising agency in New York and as a journalist for a financial website, and then joining the Peace Corps, serving as an ambulance instructor in Morocco for 27 months! After all that, he decided to study medicine and heard about the BGU program through a friend. It appealed to him because of its focus on global health issues.
“Living here is an adventure,” says Aaron. “The language is a challenge but everyone is very nice. I don’t socialize that much with my classmates because they are mostly ten years younger than me, but I have some local friends, both Israelis and Anglos. On the weekends, I volunteer in Bedouin villages, teaching English.”
Peninah Lamm Kaplansky, Bar-Ilan University, from New York, USA
Like many Orthodox Jewish Americans, Peninah came to Israel for one year after high school. Originally from West Hempstead, New York, she decided to stay and do National Service for a year. Her plan was to go back and study in the US, but during her National Service at a foster home in Netanya, she decided to remain in Israel and apply to Bar-Ilan University’s School of Social Work. By then her Hebrew was quite fluent.
“I decided on Bar-Ilan because of its reputation as Anglo friendly,” she explains. “I had friends there and knew that there’s a good support system at Bar-Ilan for foreign students.” In particular, she wanted to be a part of the Givat Shmuel community of young, religious olim.
Peninah is especially complimentary of the Israeli pioneering spirit which she says permeates local campuses. During her second year at Bar-Ilan, she organized a one-week service mission to Belarus with a few classmates, which she claims they were able to do because the university encourages student initiatives.
Now, she runs a non-profit called “Here Next Year” that helps religious Anglos spending a gap year in an Israeli yeshiva or seminary to decide whether to stay in Israel. “We provide resources in English to make the information accessible about various options,” she explains, adding that, “the skills I learned at Bar-Ilan help me today.”
According to Peninah, the situation for Anglo students in Israel is very different than it used to be. “I know people who studied in Israel ten years ago and felt so alone and lost,” she comments. “Now there is a vibrant and active community.”
Ezra Bernstein, Fulbright fellowship, from New York, USA
Ezra is currently in Israel on a prestigious Fulbright fellowship. Originally from Buffalo, New York, the 27-year old took a year off after completing his third year at UCLA Medical School in order to come here to study cancer prevention. His project is affiliated with Tel Aviv University and his actual research is carried out at Ichilov Hospital’s Integrated Cancer Prevention Center, headed by Dr. Nadia Arber. In July, he will return to Los Angeles and to Med School.
“I decided to come to Israel because I’m Jewish and have been here before,” he explains, “but also because I’m very interested in politics and the Middle East. I wanted to explore that interest and maybe combine it with my medical career.”
Ezra shares an apartment in Tel Aviv with two roommates and is trying to take full advantage of the city. “It’s an interesting mix,” he observes, “Tel Aviv is like the people of New York with the lifestyle of Los Angeles.” He was especially struck by the highly-developed culinary scene, pointing out that he frequently eats in restaurants despite being “90% vegan” – the other 10% of his diet consists mainly of burgers!
Most of his friends here are from the international crowd at the university, but he has also made an effort to seek out Israeli friends. “My Hebrew is getting better. I met one guy playing tennis.” Ezra is also getting involved politically and is in the process of building a website that provides information about the Middle East conflict, showing different perspectives. “The biggest challenge is adapting to the local mentality. Israelis are very tough on the outside; it takes time to see that they are softer on the inside,” he notes.
Shirley Stephanie Ehling, College of Law and Business, from Germany
Shirley, 27, grew up in Frankfurt, Germany and made Aliya five years ago. In Germany, she worked as a goldsmith and had wanted to become a gemologist, so at first she pursued that career in Israel as well. Although she didn’t know any Hebrew, she didn’t go to an ulpan. “After a while, I felt like my brain was dying and so I thought of backing up my jewelry appraisal career with some legal expertise,” she explains of her decision to study law at the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan – a bilingual program geared to international students. She recently completed her studies and is now getting ready to start her internship and take the bar exam next year.
“In Israel, the atmosphere is more personal and warmer, and one feels closer to the professors,” she asserts. “In Germany, I was one student out of 1,000. Here it was a nice campus experience and everyone was very welcoming.” She especially enjoyed the opportunity to meet lots of Israeli classmates. “Israelis are extroverted. Most of my friends here aren’t German,” she says, adding that she mainly socializes with other international students, mainly Europeans.
Shirley lives alone in Herzliya and also has many friends from IDC and Tel Aviv University, as well as from her own program. “I’m never alone. My life is full of social activities. I like to go to the beach and study there. I also play beach volleyball and do lots of sports – and I love classical music,” she gushes, adding that her Hebrew is now fluent.
Yulia Gr, Technion (Masa program), from Russia
Yulia, from Moscow, Russia, studied at the Technion as part of a nine-month Masa Israel Journey program, which she heard about during a Birthright trip to Israel. “Masa gave me a unique opportunity to be a student at one of the world's top universities. It was very interesting; my days were busy from morning till night. We studied four days a week and once a week there were excursions around the country or lectures with guest speakers,” she explains. Yulia especially enjoyed getting a taste of student life while living on campus and being exposed to Israeli culture.
“I met and got to know many wonderful and intelligent people. It was a huge networking opportunity. Many have stayed my close friends. I feel that I changed personally, and also that I was a part of something larger than myself. I became more independent. It was a challenge for me and I have successfully met the challenge. I had an unforgettable experience while I was at the Technion on the Masa program,” she says, summarizing her year in Israel.
Jason Hochman, University of Haifa, from Rhode Island, USA
A native of Providence, Rhode Island, Jason, 28, is studying at the University of Haifa for the second time. The first time was when he spent his Junior Year of college at the University of Haifa. After making Aliya five years ago, serving in the IDF and then working in retail to save money, Jason decided to return to the University of Haifa for a Masters in Holocaust Studies.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind program,” he raves. “All the professors are well-known and it’s an amazing learning environment.” He has Israeli roommates and likes the fact that in Haifa “students don’t live in an Anglo bubble.” At Haifa, there is also an adopt-a-student program which pairs Israelis with international students who have similar interests, which is a great way to integrate.
Jason is here long enough that he is no longer overwhelmed by the cultural differences. “In the beginning, it was shocking the way people pushed their way into an elevator,” he recalls, but today he is more aware of the positive side of Israeli behavior: “Israeli students usually go home on weekends, and if they have roommates from abroad, their parents often send them back with extra food for their roommates too. There is a real sense of community here.”
You can also view the article here.