Two Cal State University (CSU) students spending their junior year on a foreign campus are enthusiastic about their experience. Ayelet Arbel loves the beautiful campus setting, the nearby beaches, the unique cultural exposure and the vibrant city life. Adam Ascherin is most impressed by the philosophy and outlook of the local people and their ready acceptance of strangers into their extended national family.
The good news, says their resident advisor Norma Tarrow, education professor at Cal State Long Beach, is that her two charges have quickly integrated into life at Haifa University and enjoy mingling with students from Europe, Canada and the East Coast states, as well as with local Arab and Druse classmates. Tarrow was among CSU faculty, who, together with the Jewish Public Affairs Committee, persuaded the administration to reinstate its overseas program in Israel after it was canceled following the outbreak of the intifada in September of 2000.
The bad news, she says, is that there are only two students from Cal State, and unless at least eight to 10 students enroll in the Israel program for the fall semester, the Cal State administration -- which pays for her salary and heavily subsidizes the program -- will probably have to cancel it for budgetary reasons.
Tarrow acknowledges that some applicants may have dropped out because they wanted to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv University. The two locations were vetoed by Cal State, which deemed Haifa -- though it had two attacks with loss of lives in November -- the safest major city in Israel.
Nevertheless, Tarrow is disappointed that there was not a single Cal State enrollment from the populous Jewish community in Southern California, and little time is left to turn the situation around. "By April, we will have to notify our students whether or not we will have a program in Israel for the coming fall semester," she says.
Tarrow lauds the support of Haifa University's overseas program, which is headed by Dr. Hanan Alexander, formerly dean of students at the University of Judaism.
The two CSU students chose to enroll at the University of Haifa at a time when many other American students -- and tourists -- have been scared off by the continuing unrest and violence in Israel.
Not that Arbel and Ascherin are blind to the situation.
"We have been told to avoid public transportation, not to go to Jerusalem without telling our adviser and we have agreed to stay away from the West Bank and Arab neighborhoods," says Ascherin, 26, who arrived from his home campus in Chico.
Arbel, 20, from the San Jose campus, agreed to the same restrictions, but couldn't resist visiting relatives in Jerusalem.
Ascherin and Arbel both come from Northern California and from different backgrounds.
Ascherin was raised as a Mormon, though "not diligently," he says. After viewing an exhibit on the 1936 "Nazi Olympics," he started reading about the Holocaust and became intensely involved.
After working as a personnel manager for Wal-Mart for five years after high school graduation, he enrolled at Chico State, majoring in business administration and in Jewish-Israel studies under Professor Sam Edelman.
He decided to spend his junior year in Israel to learn more about Judaism and to use the Holocaust archives at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. He shares a dormitory with Israeli students, is close to mastering conversational Hebrew and downplays security concerns.
He is now weighing whether to convert to Judaism. "I am still searching, trying to find an amalgamation," Ascherin says. "But I am discovering that there is much in Judaism that I have always believed."
Arbel has had an easier time fitting in than most American students. She was born in Israel and came to California with her parents when she was 8 years old.
She speaks Hebrew fluently, which allows her to take the regular classes with Israeli students in art and art history. She also shares a dorm with five Israeli girls.
"It's a very warm feeling here," Arbel says. "The whole culture is very open and accepting, and I already feel half an insider."
Arbel plans to return to San Jose State for her senior year, but the rest of her future is up in the air.
"I may return to Israel for a graduate degree," she says, "or just decide to live there."