Q: What is your full name, where are you from, university in home country and university/program in Israel?

Hi, my name is Leah Gittleson, I turned 20 years old this year and I come from Johannesburg, South Africa. I graduated from Crawford College Sandton at the end of 2016 and decided to apply to the Mechina/BASIS preparatory program of the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2017 before choosing what to study in university.

I had already been accepted to other overseas universities when I discovered the mechina program and began to contemplate the idea of studying in Israel, contrary to my previous plans. I successfully completed the Mechina year three weeks ago and will begin my degree in Biotechnology with Agricultural Economics at the Robert H. Smith faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment at HU in October.

Q: Why Israel?

I had never planned to study in Israel after high school as I saw it as the typical choice of most Jewish students and wanted to do something different. That is why I applied to other foreign universities in Europe. At that time, my original choice of field of study was Political science, philosophy, economics, and sociology. When the idea of studying in Europe became a reality I started thinking whether that was what I really wanted. Additionally, hearing the opinions of my European friends and how they were longing to move to Israel made me ponder. Before clicking the “enroll” button I thought about Israel, its importance to me from a religious and Zionistic perspective and the fact that if I don’t visit the country in my youth, the chances of returning after my degree would be slim as my life would begin elsewhere.

The Mechina program sounded like the ideal program for me as I would spend a year perfecting my hebrew with the goal of fluency, studying subjects of my choice that would earn me credits towards my future degree and meeting students from all over the world. Choosing Israel as my first step into the living and studying abroad life has proven to be so much more than just an academic and social experience. I think that learning Hebrew also completed an essential part of my Jewish identity and strengthened my ties to Israel.

Q: What is your favorite moment so far in your journey?

There is no “one” moment that I can single out as my best from this past year. These past few months living in Jerusalem on my own and learning to be totally independent caused me discomfort and anxiety in the early days as I was an utter novice. My struggles, now when looking back, shaped me into who I am today they enriched my character and gave it complexity. If I had to choose a specific “moment” from this past year it would be the mixture of my darkest and hardest days when I felt lonely, lacked the belief in myself. These tough times were absolutely essential in teaching me the golden rule – that I am the only one who can help me overcome my obstacles – and that in order to grow and become greater, I have to endure a little pain.

In retrospect, patience and determination were the keys to my personal development. I made more and more friends, I learned how to speak Hebrew and used sport, exercise, and nutrition to aid my adjustment to a new country.

In addition to this, touring around the marvelous city of Jerusalem in my spare time exposed me to the different cultures and religions who share the city. Sometimes it would feel as if I were walking back in time. I think that the most valuable and rare experience I had was making friends with Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, which taught me how to be tolerant and have a more objective view of the political situation in Israel. I saw that Jerusalem had multiple sides to it and that each quarter in the old city told its own story that I needed to understand.

Q: What is your program like?

The mechina program required me to choose an academic track, either science or humanities along with mandatory ulpan classes in both semesters. Two months before the Mechina began I participated in the summer ulpan at Hebrew University and was taught by the most superior Hebrew language instructors in the world for 30 hours a week. Since then, I have moved up by 3 ulpan levels and only have 1 left to complete during my studies at the university.

I chose the science track and took Calculus 1 and biology in the first semester with Calculus 2, Business Management and economics in the second semester, all in Hebrew. My first week in the program can be summarized as being a whirlwind. I was still adjusting to living in Israel and I didn’t actually think that all my notes and classes would only be in Hebrew. The saying that kept me going was “adapt or die” and now when looking back, I notice the degree to which I have developed and matured both academically and psychologically. I had no idea what to expect before embarking on this journey but I knew that it was necessary to do something radical, and this year was exactly that.

Q: How do you think Israel has helped you on your journey to a meaningful career and future?

The mechina year gave me the time to explore my capabilities and see what I was truly interested in studying and I got to meet graduate and undergraduate students in the biotech field in order to get a more wholesome understanding of the degree.

For now, I am looking forward to the next leap into my undergraduate degree and am confident that there is no better institution to be a part of other than the Hebrew University especially when it comes to biotech. I am sure that in a few years time I will be able to give a detailed breakdown of all the advantages of choosing this degree in Israel and how great my opportunities are. For now, I know that I made the right choice to study in Hebrew at a world class institution in Israel at the forefront of all developments linked to science, medicine, biology and biotechnology.

Q: Any advice for incoming students or newbies to Jerusalem/ Hebrew University?

I think that one of the most important things to keep in mind is that even though you have a couple of hundred students participating in the same program, every single person will experience it completely differently due to the fact that humans are, after all, a product of their surroundings and their intrinsic character and values. All of these factors lead to different interpretations and that is exactly what makes this journey so valuable – hearing all these different viewpoints and using them  as a means to reflect on your own personal development.

My advice is that if you come with a friend or group of friends from your home country, make sure not to rely on their company too much as you will never widened your social circles and will miss out on integrating with true Israelis and meeting people from all over the world. One of the greatest benefits of coming alone was learning how to socialize and communicate in a new way and being reliant only on myself.

What’s more is that the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University is an adventure all on its own and exploring it everyday and using every moment to learn is simply invaluable. My favorite moments are losing myself in the colossal library! All in all it’s just essential that you remain curious at all moments and use the help you receive around you to its maximum because it will be hard and at times, you’ll question if you made the right decision to forfeit the comfort of studying in English, but I did it and I don’t regret any part of it.

A quote which I hold on to and find applicable to all new experiences is one by Goethe in his book Faust – “ In order to develop fully we have to flirt with things that are quite dangerous, but hold on to a sense of higher purpose”

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