Posted Meirav Honigman, alumna of Masa Israel's Career Israel
Life after college is a confusing time. What are your options? Work? Graduate school? Travel? These were the questions I asked myself upon graduating from Colorado College with a B.A in Religion in May of 2010. I decided to move back home and weigh my options. My lifelong dream had always been to either spend a substantial amount of time in Israel or to make aliyah. My dilemma was how to proceed in such an endeavor. During my Birthright trip in 2008, they had explained to my group that there were ways of returning to Israel, but I was not very clear on the options available to me. Initially, I looked into the logistics of moving to Israel for a year or so and trying to find work and an apartment on my own. This proved much more complicated then I had originally anticipated and the idea quickly fell by the way- side.
During the summer of 2010, I volunteered with Birthright NEXT in the San Francisco Bay Area. After expressing my concerns on the process of traveling to Israel, the Director of NEXT put me in contact with a Masa Israel representative who met with me and carefully explained a wide range of programs that fit my criteria. Masa, which means “journey” in Hebrew, is an organization funded by the Jewish Agency. An overwhelming sense of excitement took hold of me as I rushed home to review the program booklet. After a month of research, I had narrowed my search enough to feel confident in applying for the Israel Experience’s program “Career Israel.” Career Israel offers both a five month and a three month internship program in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Their database was extensive and I was easily able to compile a list of potential internships I was interested in applying for. The application process was straightforward and the staff was always happy to answer my questions. With the help of a grant for Masa, the program was much more affordable.
Before I knew it, I was flying to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv with a world of possibilities ahead of me. I was still unsure of what the future held, but I knew my trip to Israel would provide me with some clarity regarding the future. For instance, I had always considered aliyah, but I wanted to spend some time in Israel before making such a life-altering decision.
The first month was a whirlwind! I lived in the center of Tel Aviv and did ulpan, and of course, toured and explored the nightlife. It was an exciting time, but the real adventure for me was the upcoming move to Jerusalem. I have always been fascinated by religion and moving to Jerusalem would put me at the heart of not only my religious world, but that of Christianity and Islam.
Our move to Jerusalem was simple enough. The drive was only about an hour, but the differences between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were extreme. Tel Aviv is a city on the beach, and while I had an amazing month there, it felt too much like a vacation. Jerusalem is an ancient city and you can feel that as you walk along its many cobblestoned roads and when you smell the spices coming from the stalls of the shouting shuk vendors. My move to Jerusalem meant a serious step towards my feeling at home in Israel. I shared my apartment with four other girls in the Kfar Hastudentim (Student Village) of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The Kfar is on French Hill in the highly controversial area of East Jerusalem. My window even overlooked the security barrier between Jerusalem and the West Bank.
I had a double-internship with the Jewish Federations of North America and the UJA-Federation of New York. The work was fast-paced and exciting. My co-workers were warm and welcoming and I found myself surrounded by people who were excited about the work they did. It was an invigorating environment and something not commonly seen in an American office setting.
For JFNA, I worked primarily on updating their Negev Hub, a section on JFNA’s Israel and Overseas website which informs readers about federation activities in the Negev. I contacted various federations who are involved in initiatives in the Negev region and kept their information up to date on the website. This project was perfect for me as I have always felt a special connection to the Negev. Ben Gurion’s dream of making “the desert bloom” has always resonated with me, and if I were to make aliyah, I would consider making my home in the Negev. In addition to Negev work, I wrote several articles about programs funded by the JDC. On occasion, I would write media reports, which were sent to federation representatives in North America.
For the UJA-Federation of New York, I worked mostly on a report on Diversity Hiring in the Israeli Workforce to be presented to the Commission on the Jewish . This field was entirely new for me and I welcomed the challenge. Researching for the report was exciting and the product of my work will hopefully help create avenues for implementing further diversity hiring initiatives in Israel. In addition to the report, I worked on tasks related to Groups Renewing Judaism (GRJ). GRJ is a movement in Israel that seeks to reconnect the secular community to their Jewish roots. These initiatives are impressive, to say the least, and are doing a lot to try to lessen the feelings of alienation towards Judaism experienced by the reform movement and secular communities in Israel.
Career Israel provided me with the unique perspective of living and working in Israel without all the obligations that come with Israeli citizenship. In a sense, it is a test run for aliyah, or as Nefesh B’Nefesh calls it, a “Pilot” program. While the program offered a substantial amount of information on making aliyah, personally, I am still unclear as to whether or not it is the right choice for me; however, my time spent in Israel allowed me to become much more informed about the aliyah process. My time spent on the Career Israel program allowed me to fulfill a lifelong dream. I feel much closer to the Land of Israel and I can proudly say that I made sure to take advantage of every opportunity offered to me by Career Israel, JFNA and the UJA-Federation of NY.
8.15.12 at 4:25 am | After Birthright, Meirav knew she wanted to play. . .
5.7.12 at 3:29 pm | A great job in LA just wasn't enough. I headed to. . .
4.16.12 at 1:53 pm | One year following her internship in Tel Aviv,. . .
1.26.12 at 8:56 am | After quitting her corporate job and applying to. . .
12.6.11 at 8:52 am | During her gap year in Israel, Michal taught. . .
11.23.11 at 2:11 pm | Michal took her studies out of the classroom and. . .
11.9.11 at 11:32 am | Daniel grew up thinking he knew everything there. . . (3)
8.15.12 at 4:25 am | After Birthright, Meirav knew she wanted to play. . . (3)
6.2.10 at 6:27 pm | During our time working in Nashville Tennessee. . . (1)
May 7, 2012 | 3:29 pm
Posted Joseph Shamash, student at Masa Israel’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies
Born to immigrant parents from Iran, I spent my early childhood in Dallas before my family decided to relocate to Los Angeles. As a student at Hillel Academy, an Orthodox day school, Judaism was a central part of my life, though meticulous religious observance was not. I did not like feeling forced into observing the minute details of halacha – especially when it made no sense to me. As a child, I asked a rabbi whether it was better to drive to shul or stay home on Yom Kippur, and I was deeply troubled when he told me it was better to stay home.
Towards the end of middle school, I had little interest in staying involved in the Jewish community when an especially tumultuous event occurred in my life. About two months before graduating, I was expelled for starting a small fire at school, though, thankfully, no damage was done. When I witnessed my parents’ month-long campaign for me to return to school, I realized how much my Jewish education meant to them.
Though their perseverance made an impact on both the school – which let me graduate – and me, I was not interested in attending a Jewish high school. I enrolled in a local public school, where basketball became my outlet. From there, I was accepted to UCLA and landed a full-time job at Fox Sports while still at university. College was great; I had a dream job, I studied abroad in Siena, Italy and graduated with a BA in sociology
Life was not without tension, though. My parents were committed to hosting Friday night dinners at their home for our family and continued to maintain a traditional Jewish lifestyle. I had to balance my loyalties to my family with my desire to live a more secular life, which included going out on Friday night.
When a relationship with a non-Jewish woman ended because of differences in religious beliefs, I recalled the importance my parents placed on a Jewish education and I wanted to pass it along to my own children. I felt strongly about marrying someone with similar beliefs and traditions, and I knew I needed to further explore my connection to Judaism. At a lecture led by an Orthodox rabbi, I discovered a new side of Judaism – one that focused less on the obligations and more on the beauty that the religion had to offer. Suddenly I felt like Judaism could help explain my greater purpose in life.
That year I attended LimmudLA, where I took part in Jewish learning with a diverse group of Jews who shared a wide range of perspectives, ages and backgrounds. As a result, I became deeply involved in my local Jewish community, particularly with LimmudLA. There, I learned about Masa Israel’s program at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and after serious debate, I eventually decided to quit my job as an editor for The Dan Patrick Show on DIRECTV and devote a year to serious Jewish learning and exploration in Jerusalem.
Next year, together with a friend from the Birthright trip I staffed to come to Israel, I will be working on making a documentary called Finding Israel, which follows two young American Jews on a mission to better understand Israel beyond what is seen in the headlines. I look forward to continuing my personal exploration and helping other young adults discover their Jewish identities in Israel and beyond.
April 16, 2012 | 1:53 pm
Posted by Michelle Gorback, Masa Israel's Oranim Tel Aviv Internship Experience alumna
I am sitting on a bench in Jaffa, overlooking the beautiful Mediterranean to the west and the Tel Aviv skyline stretching to the north. The oppressive heat of summer has finally relented, and a cool breeze sweeps across. My stomach is too full from the large shawarma sandwich I have just devoured and my hands are greasy, but I am nonetheless content. My boyfriend and I have taken the opportunity – after a long morning of pre-Shabbat errands – to purchase this shawarma from this stand and to dig in on this bench because exactly a year ago from this day, it was my first full day in Israel and this was my first foray into a whole new chapter of my life. Now, blissfully consumed by a post-shawarma coma, I am able to reflect on my past year in Israel.
One year ago, I chose the road less traveled and proceeded to go down it at full speed: upon graduation from college, I moved to Israel having never visited the country (or many others, for that matter). Against the advice of those wiser and more world-weary, I had committed to Masa Israel’s Oranim Tel Aviv Internship Experience in a country I knew nothing about. I would be living and interning in Tel Aviv for five months, knowing only my boyfriend, who had arrived to do a Master’s program two months prior.
The first few months in Israel were some of the most trying of my life. Plagued by doubts about whether I did the right thing, struggling with a new language and a new culture, visiting a chilly and grandiose Europe only to return to the tyrannical humidity and decidedly aged architecture of Tel Aviv. I was angry at and spiteful of all of the American Jews I had come in contact with in California who had spoken so glowingly of Israel. I struggled to keep up an enthusiastic and happy appearance as I Skyped with family back home.
And then, only a few months ago, the feeling of contentment that I had so yearned for slowly began to seep through. A new friend in my program, Laura, told me that there are five stages in transitioning to a new place and period in your life: excitement, regret, acceptance, adapting, and full immersion. Maybe I missed the first step? Would I ever become fully immersed in Israeli culture? Somehow, I believed that I would always be the outsider, the other.
Yet, as I stare out over the Mediterranean Sea, I know that everything has changed in a year. In one year, the Middle East’s political climate has been completely altered. There have been weddings and new engagements. Babies have been born. I have made friends, lost them, and regained others. I have visited France, the Czech Republic, Jordan, and Holland. I have reunited with close and distant relatives. And yet, the thing that has changed most radically is, as cliché as it might sound, me.
When I first arrived in Israel, I was plagued with self-doubt. At times, I couldn’t even fight it. While trying my best to converse in Hebrew, shopkeepers, receptionists, and the occasional passerby often switched to English with pitying smiles.
But where my language skills have faltered, my world view, my knowledge of the world outside Southern California, and my sense of self have soared to new heights. I now know that no matter what I want to do and where I want to live, I need only put my mind and the weight of my effort behind it, and I can make it happen. From firsthand experience, I have learned that anything is possible as long as I am willing to devote the time and resources to giving it my best shot. Though I will never be an Israeli, I owe who I am today and who I will be tomorrow, to Israel. And for this, I am – and will always be –grateful.
January 26, 2012 | 8:56 am
Posted Shoshana Rosen, Masa Israel's Kibbutz Ulpan alumna
Do me a favor. Take a quick trip with me. Our first stop is a lively bus station with people talking loudly and grazing your shoulder as they pass. Breathe in the smell of exhaust and fresh fruit. Feel the sweat trickling down the small of your back. It’s 90 degrees outside and the weight of your bag is pulling on your shoulder. Push past those distractions—we need to find our bus! Can you see the departure board amidst the ruckus? When does our bus leave?
Oh, that’s right, the signs are in Hebrew. You can’t read them yet. It feels overwhelming doesn’t it? You’re uncertain of where you stand. Take a deep breath. You’re in Israel and about to begin a trip that will change your life forever.
Wait, let’s take a step back. In fall 2009, I quit my job, applied to business school, and moved from Los Angeles to Israel. Admittedly, these were all fairly impulsive moves for an overachieving workaholic. But then again, I was 24 and thought my quarterlife was the perfect time to test my comfort zone. I spent my half-year abroad enrolled in Masa Israel’s Kibbutz Ulpan program at Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek, studying Hebrew and working in the makbesa (laundry). While I knew it would be an adventure, I couldn’t have anticipated how much my perspective on life would change.
While there, I adopted a “try it at least once” philosophy to immerse myself in the country. I traveled from the Galilee to the desert. Along the way I tried new foods, took my first sherut (unofficial group taxi), hiked my first crater, danced in my first punk rock nightclub, and even acquired a taste for Goldstar beer.
Through these adventures I found my personal priorities shifting. Israelis taught me to put relationships first. Rather than shackle themselves to Blackberries, Israelis don’t bring their work home with them. Perhaps more importantly, Israelis express their affection for each other openly and often. My adventures in the country and connections with its people helped me readjust to how I valued my own relationships.
With my shifting priorities came a shift in world-view. I had been a myopic American most of my life and Israel adjusted my lens. My ulpan mostly consisted of new immigrants in their late teens and early twenties. We had Venezuelans, Turks, Belgians, South Africans, Mexicans, Brazilians, and more!
I was one of the few “tourists,” one of two college graduates, and definitely on the older end of the spectrum. Ostensibly, I had little to nothing in common with my fellow ulpanists. I was on a journey of self-discovery, which seemed indulgent when compared with those who had left their homes because of anti-Semitism and socio-politic instability.
Working and studying alongside such a diverse group of people opened my eyes to the rest of the world. Unlike my new friends, I had never been afraid to go out at night, never experienced a culture that suppressed women’s rights, and never been afraid to hide my Jewish identity. Talks with my ulpan friends enhanced my cultural literacy, empathy, and gratitude for the life I had lived. What’s more, these people helped push me further out of my comfort zone. They taught me how to make their native dishes, encouraged me to take advanced Hebrew, and even translated through Spanish when I couldn’t understand our mora (teacher). Most importantly, they taught me to look outside myself and approach life with a global perspective. We were different, but we were the same—young Jewish people looking to improve ourselves. There’s nothing more uniting than that.
So now, a year and a half later, I’m back in Los Angeles finishing up my MBA and ready to get back into the workforce. Only now, I look at business and myself quite differently. Today, I understand that relationships can’t take a backseat to professional success. My experience in Israel taught me how interconnected we all are as world citizens, and as Jews. We work to build our communities, protect and enjoy our loved ones, and experience the richness that the world has to offer. As different as we are, our journey is the same.
So how about it… ready to take a trip?
December 6, 2011 | 8:52 am
Posted Michal Shany, alumna of a Masa Israel gap year program
“Your classroom is just down these stairs,” the principal of Amereem Elementary School in Be’er Sheva, Israel told me. I smiled and briskly walked downstairs. The time it took me to reach the final step was well coordinated with how long it took me to translate the sign posted on the wall: ‘bomb shelter.’
A throng of smothering, excited children blocked the path to the makeshift concrete classroom. We were underground and the only ventilation came from a slow-rotating fan. Second-hand smoke wafted in through the long-since useable vents from the adjacent teachers’ room. Sweat poured down the nape of my neck as I stuttered, “Shalom. My name is Michal and I arrived from California to help you learn English.”
The teacher, armed only with her own two feet planted firmly on the ground, and a voice that could compete with that of Zeus calling from the Heavens, tried to quell the situation. But the children continued to shriek. So I decided to do the only thing that a lifetime of suburban schooling had taught me—change my tone and the level of regard in my voice. I waited for a pause in the turmoil to politely tell the children that if they helped me with Hebrew, I would help them with English. I knew that to gain respect from others, one must be humble and empathetic. I also knew that slight bribery in the form of stickers produced completed homework assignments, and that often, hugs were more important than the lessons themselves. In exchange for love, the students might increase their level of performance.
Five months into my Volunteer National Service Year for the Israeli Government through Masa Israel Journey, I have realized that accomplishments are all relative. Society says that good grades should instill a certain sense of pride. The only selfless volunteering I knew was always supervised—with ‘thank-yous’ flowing freely. And so, when a sixth grade boy named Tomer asked if I could tutor him more after school, I felt a new sense of pride.
When Tomer arrived for his lesson, he was still dressed in his soccer uniform. Panting, he explained that he had left his practice early. I was dumbfounded that the youngster had left an activity he loved in order to respect my schedule. This was an accomplishment in itself. But there was still more to come, I realized when his mother called to thank me later that week. Her foreign accent thick with rolling r’s, she apologized for not being able to help Tomer herself. I later learned that Tomer was Muslim and received refugee status in Israel. I was astonished and thrilled that his mother felt comfortable enough to send him to my home—a Jewish girl’s home—for the extra help he needed.
Flash forward two months. I am still living in Beer Sheva, but the backdrop has changed as missiles literally pound my front doorstep. Operation Cast Lead is underway, and the slow churning sirens of “Red Alert” creep into every household, finding the cracks in Jewish and Arab windows to reach the residents and warn them of impending danger. Our school has been closed for nearly two weeks and the irony of teaching in a bomb shelter has all but lost its humor.
A month prior to Operation Cast Lead, I was relocated to volunteer in a village for adults with Down Syndrome. Luckily, I continued to see Tomer, as he was one of my neighbors in the densely stacked apartments of Schoona Daled. His mother still greeted me with her foreign tongue, and Tomer still sat beside me in the community center as I helped him with his English homework.
The interpersonal respect I experienced in the developing Negev desert affected me deeply. I know that my contributions towards Tomer, regardless of discriminatory prejudices he may face in his life, will help him become a better student. I hope that when he is older, he will remember the patience, respect and study habits I showed him, and possibly feel more positively toward Israel. While accomplishments may be relative, I feel a great sense of pride for my work in southern Israel.
Michal Shany is an alumna of a gap year program through Masa Israel Journey, a project of the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
November 23, 2011 | 2:11 pm
Posted by Michal Meyers, alumna of Masa Israel’s Midreshet Harova
We learned from the wee hours of the morning until late at night, but Torah study is incomplete without chessed, or acts of kindness. This was a lesson I learned while a student at Midreshet Harova, a Masa Israel-accredited seminary in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Coming from LA, there was no shortage of interesting experiences happening right in my backyard—like that night when I was walking through the corridor-like streets and saw a guy carrying a live sheep on his shoulders because, as he said, “I have the strength, so why not?”
Still, I chose to fill my Tuesday afternoon elective slot by leaving the Jewish Quarter behind to get my dose of chessed. My first volunteer spot was Lifta, which got its name, my friends and I joked, because we had to “lifta lot of rocks.” The six of us took a bus to the entrance of Jerusalem and then stumbled down a dirt road to reach our site: a neglected building that we were renovating to turn into a drug rehabilitation center for teens. We painted doors, removed stones and debris, and generally tried to make it look more presentable. It wasn’t quite as vigorous as digging out the Kotel tunnels, but we definitely earned the falafel dinner that awaited us back at seminary.
Later in the year, I volunteered at the soup kitchen, Chazon Yeshaya on Rashi Street, near the Machaneh Yehuda shuk (outdoor market). From my first day of volunteering until the day I sadly told them I wouldn’t be back the next week, I felt like they were doing chessed for me instead of vice versa. Tamir, the head of the kitchen, referred to me as tzadika, saint, and the other senior volunteers always asked me about school, how things were going, and when I was planning on making aliyah. Mostly, I followed the directions they fired off in rapid Hebrew to hand out trays to the people who came for lunch, pack food for them to take home, and clean up the lunch room afterwards.
It was so fulfilling to take part in such beautiful service that I was unsure if I was really doing it for them or for myself. Tuesdays soon became my favorite day of the week, and of course it didn’t hurt that afterward I often moseyed over to the shuk to pick up dried dates and other delectable treats.
Now, back in the US, there’s a lot about Israel that I long for, but one of the main things I miss is that sincere concern that each Israeli I met had for me and every Jew. While volunteering, I not only learned the importance of tikkun olam, doing our part to fix the world, but I also grasped the importance of being united with the community and truly caring for the well-being of one another.
November 16, 2011 | 3:32 pm
Posted by Ashley Berns, alumna of Masa Israel's Oranim Tel Aviv Internship Experience
“Ashley, if you weren’t here with me today I would have spent the day in the shower, crying.” These words, uttered through tears of relief, have remained with me during the last two years.
Four weeks after graduating from the University of Southern California, I was on an El Al flight to Tel Aviv, unaware of the impact the next five months would have on my life. While living in the heart of Tel Aviv as a participant in Masa Israel’s Oranim Tel Aviv Internship Experience, I spent my days volunteering with the Israeli charitable organization Save A Child’s Heart (SACH). SACH brings children, at no cost to the children’s family, from developing countries to Israel for life-saving heart surgery. Once they are brought to Israel—sometimes with a relative, other times alone—they live in the SACH house before and after surgery. This house is no ordinary house. It is filled with children and relatives of diverse cultures who speak various languages. During my first visit to the house, I watched as women who spoke all different languages stood side by side, cooking their children’s favorite meals. For the children, language was not a barrier. A little boy from Angola, who spoke Portuguese, played the board game ‘concentration’ with a boy his own age from Kenya, who spoke English. They talked to each other in their native tongue, without concern for the fact that the other one did not understand him.
In addition to helping out at the SACH house, I also visited Wolfson Medical Center to entertain the children who were both preparing for surgery and recovering. At the Wolfson Medical Center, doctors volunteer their time to save children who would not have a chance at living a full life without their help. But even more amazing is the fact that 49% of the children come from the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan and Iraq.
My life changed the day I met 11-year-old Ian and 8-month-old Brian, both from Kenya. Ian’s mother was pregnant and unable to travel so his Aunt Rose accompanied him to Israel. From the moment I entered this house, Ian and I instantly connected. We both missed our families and began sharing stories of our homes. In the weeks leading up to his surgery, Ian and I played games, ran around the playground and colored. He even taught me how to whistle. I spent days in the waiting room as he had two surgeries to correct his heart defect. I walked the colorful hallways of the hospital with him as he gained his strength back. And I was with him when he was given the news that he was healthy and strong enough to return home to Kenya. But I dreaded the day we would have to say goodbye. What do you say to someone who has come to mean so much to you, and who you may never see again? As my final visit came to an end, just days before his departure, I told him to take care of himself and that I was going to miss him. We hugged and I walked away, tears streaming down my face.
Another adorable little boy I got to know was Brian. Full of life, he was always smiling and laughing. I quickly became close with Brian’s mother, Meredith, who like me, was 22 years old. Meredith is a courageous woman who felt guilty that her son was born with a heart deformity. I spent 8 hours with her in the hospital the day of Brian’s surgery. We paced the waiting room, took short naps on each other’s shoulders and prayed for the best. We talked about the wonderful things that Brian would be able to do as a healthy little boy. Minutes after the surgery, we held each other as we visited Brian in the neonatal ICU. Practically speechless, Meredith thanked me the only way she could—by telling me that she would have spent the day crying in the shower had I not been there.
Over the next weeks, I was with Brian and Meredith through the ups and the downs as Brian’s body adjusted to the improvement. Meredith showed me an inner strength that I have never seen before. It was an unlikely friendship that taught me that one can get through any obstacle as long as there is someone by your side. To this day, Meredith and I still correspond by email.
Even though two years have passed since my time at Save A Child’s Heart, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Ian, Brian and Meredith. I imagine how much they have grown and matured. I wonder what their futures hold; maybe one day they will become doctors who save the lives of others.
I am currently in my second year of rabbinical school at The Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. The lessons I learned at the SACH house and my experiences in Tel Aviv prior to rabbinical school will undoubtedly have a positive impact on my rabbinate and the way in which I interact with others. My time at SACH taught me the power of one person—I have the ability to change the lives of others, just as my life has been changed by my interaction with these incredible children.
When I first walked into the SACH house, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. After my first visit, I realized that the SACH house was exactly where I was supposed to be. I went to Save A Child’s Heart with the intention of having an impact on others and in the end they impacted me.
November 9, 2011 | 11:32 am
Posted Daniel Dokhanian, alumnus of the Masa Israel-accredited Tel Aviv University
“Do not go where the path may lead.
Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Jewish day school. Jewish high school. Jewish summer camp. Jewish family. Jewish friends. Jewish student groups in college. Jewish Studies 10. Jewish fraternity. It may go without saying that my upbringing could be called, well… biased. That bias had unfortunately fostered arrogance, an arrogance that would be humbled and, truthfully, shattered during my semester abroad at the Masa Israel-accredited Tel Aviv University. While at the time, I was no novice to the Arab-Israeli conflict, having visited the region on three separate occasions, there is one experience that has and will always stand out to me as one of the most memorable, life-changing experiences I have ever had.
Wait… is that a (gasp) Keffiyah???
That’s right. This is a picture of me (grey coat) in the city of Bethlehem with my friend Alex (white sweater). Between us, you are looking at one of our good friends, Fadi, a Palestinian living in the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, Palestine… whatever you call it, who invited us to stay over his house in a Palestinian refugee camp. That night was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. A small anecdote might help explain:
“Fernbach?” asked Fadi, looking at my friend Alex’s passport. “Isn’t that a Jewish name?” My heart dropped as I looked around the open-roofed (or should I say, no-roofed) house with cracked walls showcasing paintings with foreign Arabic script.
“Yes,” answered Alex quite confidently—in sharp contrast to the way I felt.
“You are Jewish?” Fadi asked with his thick accent and broken, hesitant English. My heart began to pound faster. The outdoor air must have grown colder, I thought, shaking.
“Yes,” he said again. A look of bewilderment – not hostility – crossed Fadi’s face. “Is that a problem?” Alex asked.
“Of course not. I guess I am just a bit surprised,” said Fadi, as though hurt that he’d been left out.
Manning up, I cut through the tension: “You have to understand—we did not feel safe telling you at first, but we came here to put ourselves out of our comfort zone and to see a different point of view,” I heard myself saying.
“Yes, I understand,” said Fadi.
My uneasiness suddenly began to evaporate. I continued, “Perhaps after tonight, you can tell your friends here that you had two Jews stay over your house, and that you’re now friends with them.”
“Absolutely,” Fadi said. He seemed to be having an epiphany. “You know, I hope you will tell the same to your friends.” He smiled.
“No doubt that we will.”
Israel, to me, is not just Birthright, the Dead Sea, the clubbing and beaching in Tel Aviv, nor the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Israel, to me, signifies tolerance. This anecdote breathes life into my convictions: progress can be achieved through understanding and tolerance. In this picture you find two Jews together with a Palestinian Muslim standing next to the Church of Nativity (where Jesus is said to have been born). What this picture means to me, is what Israel means to me: it is the heart of the movement toward religious, cultural, and ethnic tolerance in the Middle East.
Ever since my return from the Holy Land, I have had a deep yearning to spread these beliefs to my surrounding Jewish friends and family in an attempt to help them recognize that stubbornness holds you back, hostility begets division, and hatred can only breed more hatred. It is through the acceptance and understanding of others’ differences that we see progress.