Posted Leeor Brahms, alumna of the Masa Israel-accredited Hebrew University of Jerusalem's International School
Eight months is a very long time to be away from home, and it seems even longer when you’re in country like Israel. Most of what I remember are mere flashes of images or sounds shuffled together like the Mizrachit music on my ipod. Like many students studying abroad at the Masa Israel-accredited Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I came to Israel for a break from my normal routine.
I spent much of my time on the back of my Israeli boyfriend’s motorcycle. It was my first time riding one, and I wrapped my arms tightly around his stomach as he drove me down the arteries of Jerusalem. No one knew me. Often I worried about feeling accepted and how I sounded in Hebrew, but when I was on that bike I stopped caring. It was the only time when I could see the world without anyone seeing me back. I spent a lot of time on the back of that bike, and to put it simply, I fell in love in Jerusalem.
When I met him the summer before, he told me that he was a commander in the Israeli air force. He didn’t have to say more. I was taken almost immediately by his natural charm, good looks, and cute accent—or maybe I was just allured by his foreignness. Regardless, he was new and exciting, and for a girl traveling from the outskirts of Hollywood, he was the perfect start to my Israel experience.
I lived with four Israelis in a small apartment near Hebrew University’s campus. One of them, Matan, and I became very close. We talked about many things, and when I started to get homesick, he was there to make me feel better. Living in Israel wasn’t as easy for me as I originally thought. Fears of growing up and not being good enough started to surface. When I complained, Matan simply looked at me and said, “Yihiye beseder. It will be okay. I’m 25, I’m only in my first year of school, and I still don’t know what I’m doing. I didn’t have the luxury to go to university after high school.” He was right. I was worrying about things that hadn’t even happened yet. I had friends in Israel my age still serving in the army. While I had the freedom to go out on the weekends, they were stuck on a base smoking cigarettes in a pair of army boots.
On the Mount Scopus campus at Hebrew University there’s an amazing view of East Jerusalem. One time I was standing with a girlfriend and a security guard while heavy protesting picked up at the bottom of the valley. We could hear the firecrackers and even the faint echo of shoes hitting the pavement. The guard lit a cigarette and told us stories, detailing his time in the army, and how things like this happen every year. He told us how he’s used to it, and how he can’t sympathize with people who would kill in the name of God. I couldn’t relate to him because I only knew Israel from TV. Even within Israel’s borders, I felt like a spectator and as I watched, I started crying as tear gas blew in our direction. To the left of us were two Palestinians sitting on a bench watching the same scene. I wasn’t afraid, but I wondered if they hated me.
The last month of my trip is still vivid in my mind. “Don’t take the buses,” my boyfriend called to tell me. I was on the other side of the city and I needed to get back home. “Don’t leave.” The sun was dipping into the horizon, and hesitantly I set off for the bus station. I took two different buses to avoid the city center. I sat in the back so I could keep tabs on the people entering and exiting. There was word going around of a possible attack in Jerusalem. I told myself nothing would happen. Yet, for some reason images of crying babies trickled into the forefront of my mind. I knew I was imagining things. But I also knew that I wasn’t. A few days earlier a bomb blew up a bus in Eilat. There were shootings in Ramallah. Perhaps today there would be an explosion in Jerusalem.
On my last day in Israel, I went to a free concert on the beach. I sat with some girlfriends drinking frozen mojitos while singing along to the band’s rendition of Beatles’ songs. For me, that single night alone epitomized everything I had experienced during those past eight months. I thought to myself, “This is life in Israel.” It’s a life where uncertainty hangs in the balance, and where futures are shelved for a more convenient date. It’s a life where you enjoy the moments riding on a motorcycle. It’s a life where what you and I agree to be normal is very much skewed.
I chose to come to Israel because I wanted to leave a routine that I thought was, for lack of a better word, boring. I didn’t think that when I returned I would bring with me a more realistic view of life and an appreciation for people in other parts of the world. What began as an innocent exploration turned into a conflicted yet loving relationship with Israel.
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October 17, 2011 | 3:10 pm
Posted by Mike Schwartz, alumnus of Masa Israel's Young Judaea Year Course and Hebrew University of Jerusalem's International School
Like most American Jews of my generation, my first encounters with Israel were cultural. I saw pictures of people reading the newspaper while floating in the Dead Sea. I wrote notes to be placed in the Western Wall. I ate hummus and falafel at Israeli Independence Day parties. My “Israel is Good” education certainly did its job. I was in love before I even stepped foot in the Holy Land.
Then, when I finally did land in Israel after high school for nine months of study, volunteering, and experiencing Israel through Masa Israel’s Young Judaea Year Course, I immediately felt at home. As a first-timer, everything I did that year was new and exciting. Only now, years later, do I realize that this should have been my first sign as to how much deeper I still had to dig in order to discover the real Israel.
During my junior year of college, I returned to Israel to study for a semester at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It was during those five months that I began to uncover much of the information that was absent in my earlier encounters with Israel.
While visiting a Jewish Israeli friend studying at the Technion, the MIT of Israel, situated in the mixed Arab and Jewish city of Haifa, I experienced an encounter that illuminated a rift in Israeli society. In a conversation about the student population, my friend revealed his resentment for the large number of Arab students at his university. “It’s fine if they want to study here,” he said.“They just have to remember that they’re foreigners.”
“Foreigners?” I repeated. Didn’t they hold Israeli citizenship? Hadn’t their families lived in Israel for generations? His response was that Arabs were foreigners because Israel is a Jewish country. “That is something that family history and citizenship cannot change,” he said.
Instead of keeping me away from Israel, this experience only compelled me to return. I wanted to continue my search for a bigger picture. A year later I had the opportunity to travel to the Palestinian territories. In Jenin, a Jewish friend was volunteering to restore a cinema that had been closed since the first Intifada over 20 years earlier. The only movie theater in an area with over 50,000 residents, it was intended to provide an outlet for the people and to foster cultural development. The cinema could help the residents develop artistic appreciation and not turn to violence.
During my visit, I met my friend’s Palestinian host family. As soon as I introduced myself, they asked me if I was Jewish. Unaccustomed to being so far outside my bubble, I was nervous. My friend sensed my discomfort and made it clear that there was no harm in telling the truth. I answered their question and the topic never again resurfaced. Instead, what followed was a straightforward conversation using a fair amount of Hebrew with the patriarch of the family. He told me that he longed for the days when he made a living working for Israelis who were now on the other side of a barrier that he was not permitted to cross.
In the two years that I have been fortunate enough to live in Israel, I gained a more comprehensive understanding of the region’s history and can confidently say that it’s time we rethink the “Israel is Good” educational paradigm.
It isn’t always easy to be honest, but it’s time to trust in youth to appreciate the nuance wrapped up in the Israel we love. With the core Jewish value of Tikkun Olam in mind, we must take on the responsibility of teaching the difficult truths. After all, we’re given an imperfect world and it’s our duty to work to make it better.
September 20, 2011 | 12:02 pm
Posted Sharona Rosen, alumna of Masa Israel's Young Judaea Year Course
It is the 3rd of April around 10 P.M. and the city of Tel Aviv is more alive than ever. People are walking the streets, laughing and talking. Then suddenly a siren sounds, and the city freezes. It is Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism, and every single person, whether walking or driving, stops what he or she is doing and stands for a moment of silence in respect of the soldiers and families affected by war. One minute of nationwide silence and prayers, and then the city is back to normal.
It’s the 4th of April, 11:00 A.M. and the cities of Israel are bustling. Like any normal morning in the city, people are rushing to work, cars are honking, and people are walking, talking, and laughing. Then suddenly a siren sounds. Rapid silence rushes through the streets of Israel, and again, everyone gets out of their cars, stops whatever they’re doing, and stands for a moment of silence in respect of fellow Israeli citizens, family, and friends who have been affected by wars. Though the scene can be described, I know that until I experienced it during my gap year in Israel, I never truly understood it.
At 11:00 A.M. on the morning of April 4th, I was standing on a bridge above the highway. Thirty seconds before 11, cars began pulling over on the road and people began getting out of their cars to await the siren. Chills rushed through my body as I experienced a sense of unity and spirituality that I had previously not known. I was sure that this was the most amazing sight in the world—until later that evening.
Even after living in Israel for close to nine months, I had never seen Tel Aviv shut down—neither at 9 P.M. nor 5 A.M. Tel Aviv is usually rustling and bustling—except on the night of Yom Hazikaron. Every single café, bar, restaurant, store, corner store, gas station, supermarket, and pharmacy was closed. The quiet confused me at first. There I was, trying to find a place that was open for dinner when I arrived at Rabin Square. It was packed with over 50,000 people, Israelis and tourists alike, who had come together for a memorial service. Once again, I was struck by the unity in the city. Not only did the whole city participate, but the instant the speeches began, the city was silent. Not one cell phone went off. Not one child cried. Not one person spoke. Everyone stood still and listened. The city mourned together.
Morning of April 5th: Tel Aviv is itself once again, except for a few details. The streets of Tel Aviv are filled with music, and only 24 hours after the day of mourning, the Israeli people celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. The mood is celebratory now, but much remains the same. The feeling of national unity is alive in Tel Aviv.
May 12, 2011 | 10:55 am
Posted by Masa Israel Journey
by Ravid Tilles, student at Masa Israel’s Schechter Rabbinical Seminary Overseas program
On Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the month of the Jewish calendar, brave women, known as the Women of the Wall, enter the female section of the Kotel praying area and conduct a morning service. Hoping to create a communal prayer option for egalitarian women at the most sacred prayer space for modern Jewry, the Women of the Wall’s presence is very unique. Usually women who visit the Kotel must pray quietly and alone because in most Orthodox communities, men are prohibited from hearing the voices of women. While a physical divider still separates men and women at the Kotel, the Women of the Wall pray as loudly and passionately as the men on the other side.
During our year in Israel, my wife, Yaffa and I knew that we wanted to show our solidarity with the Women of the Wall. But in supporting the fight against the religious status quo, we worried about our safety. In the past, individuals have thrown things at the Women of the Wall and one time there was such a commotion over their presence at the Kotel that some of the women were arrested.
On the morning of Rosh Hodesh Adar, my wife Yaffa and I decided to brave the rain and the 30 degree weather and go. Committed to showing our support for egalitarianism in Israel and protesting the non-egalitarian nature of the Kotel prayer space, we woke up at 6. Though security guards initially prevented me from standing next to the dividing wall, I eventually convinced the half dozen police officers that I was with the group as a supporter, and they permitted me to stay.
Protected by massive security surrounding the women from all sides, Yaffa and around 50 women of all ages, prayed in the back of the women’s section of the Kotel, while I, and a handful of other supportive men, joined in with the community. Interestingly, this was the first time that I had ever been on the side of the mechitza that was separated from the major action of the service. The women were filled with joy as they danced together and sang the Hallel prayer.
Before that day, it seemed to me like the government prioritized the interests of the ulta-Orthodox communities over those who affiliate with liberal strands of Judaism. Whether revealed through tax exemptions, army service exemptions, or even the fact that the Kotel is controlled by ultra-Orthodox rabbis, the government seems to have taken sides with the ultra-Orthodox. But on Rosh Hodesh Adar, I felt that, for once, my interests were being protected. Finally, my religious freedoms and rights to pray at the Kotel with women were being preserved.
As I prayed at the Kotel with the Women of the Wall, I felt proud to be in the State of Israel which protected my rights, Yaffa’s rights and other women’s rights to experience the land of Israel in a religious way.
May 2, 2011 | 10:00 pm
This morning we went to Pleasant Grove, Alabama, a town outside of Birmingham that was devastated by the recent tornadoes.
There are no words to describe what we saw.
As far as we could see in every direction there was devastation and destruction. Houses destroyed, trees down, everything just gone.
In times like these we all want to do what we can to help, but right now volunteers like us need to be patient, which is hard. This is a time for the experts to be working.
There will be time to help soon—plenty of it, actually, because Alabama and the Southeastern states will need our help for the long term. This disaster will not be cleaned up in a day a week or even a month. The communities of Alabama will need our help for many months, and maybe even years.
Which is why we will try to remember the feeling we are having today, and hope that it will help us to plan for the time when we can help the people who have been affected by this disaster on their long and difficult journey to rebuilding their homes and their lives.
April 28, 2011 | 12:07 pm
Posted by Masa Israel Journey
by Louis Sachs, student at Masa Israel’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies
I have spent the past nine months, living in Jerusalem and absorbed in the history of the Jewish people. Through Masa Israel Journey, I am a student at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, where I engage in intensive Jewish textual study each day. Sunday through Thursday, I take classes on Chumash, Talmud, Rambam, Modern Jewish Thought, and many other subjects. In these classes we look at the texts in their original language, often Hebrew or Aramaic. While this has been tremendously difficult for me, it has been exponentially rewarding as I have witnessed how much my abilities have progressed throughout this program. What has been even more incredible is realizing how important and relevant these ancient texts are to my modern life.
One of the things I have noticed in our tradition is the importance of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” The belief that we need to look out for those around us and not think only of ourselves comes up again and again in our people’s vast literature. “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Hillel famously said in Pirke Avot 1:14, Over 2,000 years ago Hillel, one of the greatest rabbis of our tradition, understood the importance of looking out for the needs of others and not only of our own.
In his renowned work, the Mishnah Torah, Rambam taught that eight levels of charity exist and that each is above the other. The lowest is giving grudgingly and the highest is helping someone become self sufficient. Rambam lived in Spain over 800 years ago, and not only understood the importance of helping others but saw that there were distinctions in how one helps another. For Rambam, the greatest form of tzedakah was not a temporary fix, but a permanent solution. He understood that tikkun olam went beyond helping those in need, but addressing the problems that cause it, as well.
In Bereshit 6:9, we are introduced to Noah and the text states that he walked “with” God. Rashi, one of the greatest commentators in our tradition, notices the difference between this verse and Bereshit 17:1 about Abraham, which tells us that our forefather walked “before” God. Rashi explains that Noah required God’s support for his righteousness, while Abraham had this strength within himself. Many other commentators have also wondered why Noah walked with God and Abraham walked in front of God. While they give many interesting explanations I am particular to one we discussed in my class.
Noah himself was a good person; the text even describes him with the same word later used for Abraham, “tamim,” often translated as “pure,” “perfect,” or even as, “blameless.” There is however, one important difference between the two: Noah was himself tamim, while Abraham sought to lift up those around him as well.
Over and over throughout the story of Abraham, we see him go out of his way to help those around him. When a powerful group of kings comes from the East to wage war against the local kings near Canaan, Abraham gathers the men of the household to help the local kings. After he saves the day, he takes nothing for himself from the loot they collected in the war. Not only did he go out of his way, but he expected nothing as a reward for his actions. Also, when God plans to destroy the city of Sodom, Abraham argues with him until God agrees not to destroy the city for the sake of 10 righteous people living there.
As opposed to Noah, Abraham set himself apart by focusing on helping others in any way he could. He walked before God, because he carried God’s message into the world through acts of tikkun olam. Noah may have been a good guy himself, but when the flood came, he did his duties but didn’t go beyond them to help anyone else. This quality explains why Abraham, and not Noah, merited being the father of the Jewish people.
At Pardes, I’ve learned that it is our responsibility as Jews to be like Abraham and to go beyond what we are told to do. Whether it is with money, time, or even just treating our fellow human being with dignity, it is our duty to perform acts of tikkun olam, and repair the world, by helping others in any way we can.
Next year, Louis will begin rabbinical school at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.
March 31, 2011 | 11:54 am
Posted by Masa Israel Journey
by Chaya Cunin, participant in Masa Israel’s Machon Shoshanat Yerushalayim
Throughout the world and in Israel, terror is a horrific reality. Fortunately, being in Israel this year on a Masa Israel program has presented me with many opportunities to think, speak and most importantly, take action in support of Israel. One of my most meaningful volunteer placements enables me to spend time with victims of terror, giving them an extra dosage of love and support.
Through the Chabad Terror Victims Project, my friend, Etty Winner and I were matched up with a Persian family in Jerusalem. On August 19, 2003, the family was riding a city bus, the mother holding her baby in her lap, when a terrorist blew himself up. The whole family was injured and sent to the hospital. The baby was killed in her mother’s arms.
Before we met the family, Etty and I assumed we would spend our visits acting as social workers, listening to the family’s pain and sorrow. But we were wrong. The family has found strength amidst pain to carry on with day-to-day life and they continually inspire us. To show our support, we spend time with the children, allowing the parents a moment to rest and letting them know that they are not forgotten.
Every Wednesday afternoon, Etty and I head over to the family’s home in Jerusalem. With a special activity for the children in tow, we are as excited to see the children as the children are to see us. We bring puzzles and games, toys and arts and crafts projects, which allow them to express their individuality. Since the beginning of the year, they have crafted charity boxes and decorated star magnets to proudly display their photos on the fridge. We spend hours finding projects that would best foster the children’s talents and creativity.
Before Chanukah, we helped them get into the holiday spirit by throwing them a party complete with sufganiyot, latkes and wooden dreidel decorating. As Purim approached, they created handmade wooden groggers.
The children’s birthdays, their time to celebrate life, are very important days for survivors–and we make them as special as possible with a ‘party-in-a-bag’. Along with inviting their friends to share in the festivities, we eat delicious treats, sing ‘Yom Huledet Samayach’ and play fun games. When it is not a holiday or birthday—we still make sure the children have fun—with trips to the park, and ice cream and popcorn snacks.
By volunteering with terror victims, we show the family, the Jewish community and the world at large that terror should not be tolerated. We help them take one day at a time and carry on with life.
In the wake of the Fogel family tragedy in Itamar, and the horrific recent bombing in central Jerusalem, we are now trying to cope with the pain that this intolerable, brutal terrorism causes. Having grown so close to victims of terror, it is especially hard to digest the harsh events that have taken place. I continue to pray for the time when peace and harmony will reign, and all sadness and hostility will be replaced with joy and unity.
March 25, 2011 | 1:14 am
Posted Merav Ceren, Masa Israel Journey Participant
We heard the news over the radio at my office in the West Bank. The initial reports were more detailed in Hebrew, but more confusing for it – a suicide attack in Jerusalem turned out to be an unattended bomb outside a bus stop across the street from the Central Bus Station. Two people dead. No one dead. Shootings in other parts of the city (which also ended up being false). Eyewitnesses had seen conflicting events and were speaking Hebrew way too fast for me to understand all of it. I sent off a quick e-mail to loved ones back home before the cell phone system crashed, which it did about 30 minutes after the attack. I couldn’t get phone calls, e-mails, gchat messages or BlackBerry messages after that. Throughout the office and on the drive home, everyone’s phones rang intermittently as a family member or friend succeeded in getting through, everyone picking up with the same line – “Ani beseder, I’m ok.” Getting back into Jerusalem proved to be slow; the checkpoint was crowded and the traffic trailed far behind in a line I’d never experienced in my 6 months of working in the West Bank. I noticed on the way in that soldiers were wearing nametags. I don’t know if I just never looked at the soldier at the checkpoint in the past, but evidently Israeli soldiers wear their names prominently on their uniforms in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The line getting out of Jerusalem was even worse; not only was the checkpoint full, but soldiers had set up another checkpoint about a mile into the same road. They were checking everyone thoroughly, regardless of license plate.
I grew up in the Inland Empire, but, with family in Israel, the Second Intifada had cured me early in life of the belief that terrorism couldn’t touch me. If anything, being in the country at the time of an attack made me feel a bit more in control of an uncontrollable situation; I experienced the attack in real-time and could get assurances of safety from friends and family much more quickly. Also, every person around me was doing the same thing. In that sense, there’s a feeling that everyone is going through this together. Thankfully, what happened yesterday at Binyanei HaUma can’t be compared to the destruction and loss of life caused by over five years of suicide attacks. The shock and lack of control you feel whenever any of these attacks happen, however, is the same. So once you hear, you start calling. And you don’t stop until you hear that your loved ones are ok. After that, the stories start to pour in.
The woman who was killed in the attack was in the ulpan of a friend’s friend. She was about the same age as the Russian bubbe in my ulpan. That’s the biggest difference of being in Israel; everyone knows everyone who knows someone else. The interconnectedness of society here is real and makes most news events much more personal. My heart goes out to her family.
A friend of mine told me she heard the explosion. She works about 10 minutes away from the site of the attack. She described feelings of helplessness, followed by anger and an even stronger commitment to make aliyah. This staunch feeling of living without allowing terrorism and fear to make your decisions is something I saw in my coworkers and those on the street throughout the city.
The bus to the center of town that afternoon, about two hours after the attack, was just as crowded as it always is, with standing room only. Jerusalem last night was definitely quieter. Ben Yehuda still had its crowd of tourists and vendors, but there were fewer locals. The unseasonably cool weather could have been to blame, but being home to talk to loved ones may also have played a factor. At the bars, I heard Israelis talking about the other attacks they’d lived through. The tractor attacks of ’08 came up regularly. But for the most part, people were taking the advice of the mayor. Nir Barkat had implored Jerusalemites to keep their eyes open to avoid future attacks, but to most importantly go about life as usual. Changing routines or living in fear allows terrorism to win, he explained. The overarching analysis I kept hearing, from taxi drivers to university students in pubs, is that these sorts of things are a part of life in Israel. Although it’s a harsh reality and one Israel cannot and will not accept, these attacks are a part of the Israeli fabric of experiences. Though in another country, the normal reaction would be to stay home on a night like Wednesday, getting a beer at the local pub downtown was the most important, and the most satisfying, thing I could have done that night.