Lauren Swersky always had a feeling that she would end up in Israel when it came time for the University of California, Davis junior to study abroad, though she explored all the options available. “I was very involved in Jewish life growing up, and I was always looking for opportunities to go back and study in Israel,” she explained.

Through UC Davis Hillel, Lauren realized that opportunities to go back to Israel were readily available. So, she followed her intuition and ultimately decided to study in Jerusalem. “I had already experienced Tel Aviv on previous trips and I felt like it was more unique to experience Jerusalem,” she said.

And experience Jerusalem she did. While observing Yom Kippur during one of her first weeks in Jerusalem, Lauren walked just over three-and-a-half miles from the Hebrew University Student Village on Mt. Scopus to the Old City. Along the way, Lauren heard the Muslim call to prayer for the very first time. When she arrived at the Old City, she heard church bells ringing. When she finally made her way to the Kotel, the sun was shining. “Everything was glowing and everyone was wearing white,” she remembered.

Lauren admits that the call to prayer and church bells initially came as a surprise. However, “that day really set the tone for my semester; there are so many religions and ideologies intersecting in Jerusalem,” Lauren explained. Her experiences that day inspired her to discover and understand as many of these religions and ideologies as possible, both in the classroom and throughout the city.

On campus, Lauren seized the opportunity to enroll in extremely unique courses that fulfilled her general education and Psychology major requirements. However, Hasidism: From Mystic Fraternity to Reactionary was her absolute favorite course that semester, mainly because of the professor. “He was not your stereotypical Hasidic person,” Lauren said. His life experiences, open-mindedness, and dedication to his students and their personal interests – spiritual and otherwise – were extremely refreshing to Lauren.

“All of the professors invited students over for the holidays and stuff. It was definitely a unique experience that you wouldn’t get anywhere else. I went to a big university, so I didn’t really have personal encounters with professors. The professors at Hebrew U really cared about us and made an effort to get to know us,” Lauren explained.

Off campus, Lauren made every effort to speak to as many people from as many different backgrounds as possible. “Most people were open and willing to talk about ‘taboo’ things like politics and religion,” Lauren said. Many of the individuals with whom she spoke also wanted to hear what she had to say as an American.

Sometimes, these conversations turned into friendships. Lauren became close friends with Bedouin jewelers who owned shops in the Old City that had been in their families for generations. Her roommate and best friend while studying abroad loved making jewelry; she spent much of her free time exploring the jewelry shops throughout the Old City, chatting with artisans, and shopkeepers. Lauren joined her on these adventures at least once-a-week.

The two students soon found themselves making jewelry with their new friends, one of whom even invited them to his wedding. After lengthy discussions about whether or not to attend the wedding, they finally accepted the invitation. Upon arriving at the celebration hall outside of Jerusalem, Lauren and her roommate joined 300 Bedouin women dressed in traditional clothing, dancing the night away. Their friend the groom made a brief appearance for a quick dance with his bride, until he was shooed away and sent back to the men’s reception. “They went all out – they even set off fireworks inside of the celebration hall. It was over the top, but it was incredible,” Lauren remembered.

After her semester at Hebrew University, Lauren returned to UC Davis and graduated in the spring of 2014. She now lives in New York City, where she currently works as a Therapy Aide in an integrative medicine practice.

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