Growing up in Atlanta, Scott Berger first became involved in Judaism as a teenager through Bnai Brith Youth Organization. But, it was not until he was a freshman at Tulane University that he first traveled to Israel with Birthright.
“I had no idea what to expect and it was thrilling for me to be in a country filled with other people like me,” says Scott. “I knew I wanted to spend more time there.”
During his fourth year at Tulane, Scott decided to study in Israel. But, as an architecture student at a university that discouraged study abroad in Israel, the process was not simple. “My study abroad advisor encouraged me to take a semester off and look into university programs where other Tulane students had studied,” says Scott. “I decided to take a semester off from architecture and focus on Jewish studies at Hebrew University.”
At Hebrew University, Scott enrolled in an intensive Hebrew Ulpan, as well as courses that covered the Israeli-Arab conflict, Israeli art, and archeology in Jerusalem. “More often than not, the reading for my Jewish Studies courses at Tulane is written by Hebrew University professors,” says Scott. “It was an incredible opportunity to study with the best in the field.”
Scott also enjoyed sharing a dorm with international students from Germany, Switzerland, Spain, and Canada. “It was a beautiful thing to meet other Jews from all over the world, who had each decided to study in Israel,” says Scott.
While in Israel, Scott had the opportunity to explore diverse Israeli communities. For the high holidays, Scott split his time between an Orthodox community in the Old City of Jerusalem and the secular suburbs of Tel Aviv. “I spent Rosh Hashanah experiencing the hospitality of families who were much more religious than me, and then on Yom Kippur, I watched movies all day while fasting,” says Scott. “I can’t say I enjoyed one experience more than the other, but I did love seeing the dichotomy of Israeli culture.”
When Scott’s parents and Catholic best friend came to visit towards the end of his time in Israel, he knew the country well enough to show them around. “It was wonderful to watch their preconceptions of Israel shatter,” says Scott. “They were definitely impressed and told me that if I ever lived in Israel in the future, they would love to return.”
Since returning to campus to finish up his Masters in architecture, Scott has participated in URBANbuild, a program in which students design and build homes to help in the Katrina relief effort. He also attends Israel-advocacy events on campus and reads English-language Israeli newspapers every day. In a few years, he hopes to return to Israel for another extended period of time to work or volunteer.
“I feel a real sense of comfort in Israel,” says Scott. “In Israel, everyone seems to know each other, or at least each other’s cousins. It makes for a real warm environment, one where I feel like I belong.”