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?