From Israel, With Love

I would like to begin this post with a truth: coming to Israel was the best decision of my life. Undoubtedly. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of academic accomplishments and general milestones, but, perhaps owed to my youth, nothing of my past speaks to me in the way this country has (and still continues to do!)

I was raised the daughter of a Christian mother and an ethnically Jewish father and, as I’ve found is the case for many young, secular, American Jews, really got the best of both worlds. In earlier days, my family would celebrate all major holidays, and I have fond memories attending both special Christmas Eve church services and the outrageous Purim Megillah readings that left the entire synagogue in an uproar. I got my first taste of wine with my Jewish brothers and sisters, and was baptized in front of a loving, Christian congregation at age 12. Regrettably, as I grew older, I seemed to lose track each year of my Jewish roots and gradually lived my life in absence of both religions. Of all things, it wasn’t until setting foot, bedraggled after my flight, in Herzliya, the gorgeous coastal town where I am living during my exchange, that I really began to feel that sense of infamous Jewish community (my mid-Shabbat arrival also helped with that) and was reminded of everything I knew I had been missing. Needless to say, in all respects, although probably an obvious mess, I was excited for the adventures I knew awaited me.

First look of Israel, Ben Gurion Airport; Tel Aviv

First look of Israel, Ben Gurion Airport; Tel Aviv

Off to Israel

To start with my travels, so far, in the nearly two months that I’ve been here, I have gotten around a substantial portion of the country, mainly in the north. Through various connections, random but kind strangers, and a whole lot of luck, I’ve traveled (briefly) through the Golan Heights, Mt. Hermon, the Sea of Galilee, part of Nazareth, Rosh HaNikra, Akko, Haifa, Caesarea, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and, moving down south a bit more, Jericho. I will, of course, refer back to my favorite places overall, but I would like to start with my first major adventure of this trip to set the mood of this country’s essence.

The stunning Baha'i Gardens on the side of Mt. Carmel; Haifa

The stunning Baha’i Gardens on the side of Mt. Carmel; Haifa

Less than 9 hours after I had arrived, at that time living in another exchange student’s apartment, I was told to get up and get ready for a trip down to Jericho. I was startled, as it was only 8 am and I had gotten far less sleep than I needed, but not only this, it was being sponsored by my friend’s church leader whom I had never met before. This was new to me, for it seemed inconceivable that a stranger could be so kind without any questions at all. Nonetheless, I went along with the plan and I was surely glad I did. We were to drive about three hours into the Judean Desert to visit Wadi Qelt, a nearby Bedouin encampment, and the historical highlights of Jericho, including (but not limited to) Zaccheus’ tree and the ruins of one of King Herod’s several palaces in Israel. [Let me tell you, those ruins are ruined, it took about 20 minutes of driving in circles to find it because it was only a single, flat layer of rocks.] Haha, anyways, as you can see, it was quite an interesting trip (even complete with my first Middle Eastern scarf doubling as a head covering), but more importantly, it was terribly spontaneous, entirely a surprise to me, and absolutely worth it.

View of Wadi Qelt and St. George's Monastery; near Jerich

View of Wadi Qelt and St. George’s Monastery; near Jericho

Myself rocking a head scarf less than 12 hours after arriving in Israel; Jericho

Myself rocking a head scarf less than 12 hours after arriving in Israel; Jericho

The first few days

If there is one thing I can say about this country, it is that everyone here truly goes with the flow. Sometimes it’s ridiculous. No apartment, no problem, just couch surf for a couple weeks. Too much traffic, no problem, drive on the sidewalk. No place to stay after a long night of partying, no problem, crash at your friend’s apartment who half expected you there anyways. I could go on and on. It is equally important that you go with the flow as well, whether living here for 6 months as a student or just visiting the hotspots for two weeks.

I actually managed to both lose and have stolen my brand-new Samsung Galaxy SIII about a month into this exchange ago. If I had been back in the States, I probably would have had a meltdown. However, I swear that because of the easy-going sentiment of this country, I talked myself down, knowing that a piece of plastic would not and definitely could not stand in the way of my having a good time here. A few days after the phone was stolen, my computer charger stopped working and I actually was without any form of electronic communication for about four days. I did get the charger fixed, but during the four days in between, I casually relied on my wonderful exchange friends to relay the most important messages from the WhatsApp group (our preferred form of group communication) and was just as excited about being here as I had been days before. That’s a long and rather embarrassing example, but the phone incident, Jericho, and countless other moments are all part of the collection of memories that I will cherish here as teaching me the importance of positive thinking and having an ever-present sliver of faith.

Perhaps because of the wonderful company or perhaps because of the spontaneity, the trip to Jericho sticks out in my mind as one of my favorite here so far. Also at the top, as may be expected when in Israel, was the time I have thus far spent in Jerusalem. What can’t I say positive about that city? Unknown to many Americans, myself (until arrival) included, is that Jerusalem is actually comprised of an old city and new city, as are many of the famous historical and religious towns here, and it is this very fact that make Jerusalem one of the most unique and inspiring places I have ever been to. On the one hand, the new city, in which I have spent (so far) very little time, reminds me very much of Washington D.C. with its Western style residences and assortment of vibrant yet still subdued nightlife activities. Similar to D.C. Jerusalem boasts a plethora of museums, including the world-famous Israel Museum (the Dead Sea scrolls can be found here) and Yad Vashem, perhaps the world’s biggest Holocaust Memorial Museum. Sadly, I have been to neither of these yet, but you can be sure they are near the top of the to-do list.

On the other hand, you have the classic sites of the old city, which include, as you may well know, Via Dolorosa (the path Jesus took when walking to Calvary Hill and his crucifixion), the supposed Garden Tomb of Jesus in the plot of Joseph of Arimathea, an assortment of significant Christian churches (Church of the Redeemer and Church of the Holy Sepulchre being the two most famous), Mahane Yehuda (an incredible open-air market place), and the various sites within the general Temple Mount area (Jaffa and Damascus Gates, the Citadel and Tower of David with the accompanying museum, the Dome of the Rock mosque and courtyard, and of course, the Western Wall and tunnels). Walking just about anywhere in the Old City of Jerusalem, you will find yourself suddenly immersed in a world of bright colors and intoxicating aromas, no lie. If you are looking for inexpensive alternatives for daily fun, take a buddy or two (this is important here, never travel alone, as the various cultural quarters into which the old city is divided can present different sorts of trouble based on a given person’s demographics) and just walk through the marketplaces along David St. or in the opposite direction from the Damascus Gate. It’s difficult to be bored and you never know what kind of treasures you may find. I only wish I had more pocket money, because there was definitely one or two things that caught my eye 😉

Dome of the Rock in Temple Mount; Jerusalem

Dome of the Rock in Temple Mount; Jerusalem

The men's section of the Western Wall; Jerusalem

The men’s section of the Western Wall; Jerusalem

The main dome in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; Jerusalem

The main dome in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; Jerusalem

Going back briefly to the subject of reviving my Jewish roots in Israel, I don’t think I need to say that, undoubtedly, I found a small part of myself at the Western Wall. That sounds like a cheesy song title, but one of the great powers of the Wall, in my opinion, is the fact that, regardless of age, nationality, religious beliefs, and the like, it can bring together such a diverse group of people and, furthermore, reduce us all for a moment to our basic state of humanity. I felt it, I truly did. Like I said, I was raised in a mainly Christian household with a scattering of Jewish tradition, but as I left my youth behind me, any religious beliefs I may have had stayed there with it. This was, and still is not, a bad thing, as I create my own spirituality through world experience, but at the Wall, I personally felt touched by a force that many would call God. It was unique and I will always keep the full experience deeply personal, but I will say that, in one moment, I saw my own humanity and humility flash before my eyes. In that one moment, it was both unusually uncomfortable and deeply satisfying to be human, but it was also powerful knowing that the other women around me were in the same position, though of course in a way unique to each of them. Afterwards, I wrote what I needed to on a scrap of paper and stuck it in the wall, pausing briefly for another moment of contemplation and then leaving quietly soon after. I have no truly accurate words to describe my visit, but the very fact that such an experience can happen in such a city speaks volumes to me of Jerusalem’s place in the world.

Jerusalem is most remarkable to me in that it is a labyrinth of possibilities waiting to be discovered by only the worthiest explorers. The city cannot be seen in one day, nor two or even three. It takes a substantial number of visits to hit up all the major sites, as well as fully take in the essence of the place. If you do not have so much time, as many people don’t, you must pick and choose your battles and the combination of places you may choose feels endless. To that effect, I look forward to my returning trips there and the adventures that will undoubtedly unfold.

Besides Jerusalem, I think my favorite place I have since been to is the grotto of Rosh HaNikra. Actually a series of underwater caves and rivers, these grottoes are absolutely surreal and the perfect destination for individual nature lovers and families alike. I went, once again unexpectedly, with two friends one day and the added adrenaline of that improvised decision set the mood for the hours that followed. In order to actually reach the grottoes themselves, you must take an exhilarating cable car ride from the top of the rock down closer to the sea; from that cable car, you can see Lebanon’s aquatic border and the crystal-clear Mediterranean Sea just as far as you can imagine. You think that sounds spectacular? Then you will have to prepare yourself for the purest colors you will ever see once you reach the bottom. The grottoes are a stunning mixture of the whitest whites, bluest blues, and greenest greens, and in my limited travel experience, are certainly the richest I have yet encountered.

The Mediterranean Sea as seen near the grottoes at Rosh HaNikra

The Mediterranean Sea as seen near the grottoes at Rosh HaNikra

Another view outside of the grottoes; Rosh HaNikra

Another view outside of the grottoes; Rosh HaNikra

Selfie time at the grottoes!

Selfie time at the grottoes!

I lost myself for a couple hours in those grottoes at Rosh HaNikra. There is a short, informational video and infinite amounts of time to explore the passageways inside the rock, but I couldn’t help being mostly captivated by the natural beauty of the place that has made such aesthetics a tradition for hundreds of years prior. Even now, thinking back on that trip, I see the grottoes mainly as some sort of glittering gem in the north western corner of Israel, the diamond cap on a mighty scepter. I had already maintained high opinions of the country before even setting foot here a minute, but with each new natural landmark I visit, those opinions definitely grow stronger and stronger 🙂

The Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya

Being here in Israel isn’t all about the traveling, however. With an average-sized course-load, we (the exchange students) do need to stick around Herzliya most of the week to attend our classes and complete necessary homework. The Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya [CGE program page | IDC homepage] (loving referred to as the IDC by…everyone) is actually the most expensive and most reputable private school in Israel coming in at around $10,700 a year, a fact made fairly clear by the stunning campus, top-notch departments, and the incredible International School.

The main walkway and entrance to the IDC campus. The oranges smell incredible every morning!

The main walkway and entrance to the IDC campus. The oranges smell incredible every morning!

"The grass" in the center of campus where many students spend most of their free time

“The grass” in the center of campus where many students spend most of their free time

Let me just give a whole lot of credit to the Raphael Recanati International School (RRIS) for the amazing integrative work they do on a regular basis. Although, in general, dealing in any way with any Israeli offices, including the more serious aspects of our exchange, is usually a lot of trouble, the social side of the RRIS ranks high in my books. For many of the exchange kids, Israeli society proves to be quite a culture shock, but the RRIS has numerous programs in place to ensure a more mellowed transition to Israeli student life. In the spring especially, there are at least five major events for international students, including the Tiyulaila, an overnight excursion to a nature reserve for a moderate hike and campfire in the sand dunes (this was great for bringing together some of the Israeli and international students); the International Festival, in which students volunteer to run a booth of their home country and sell foods/goods to the general student body; and the North Trip, the most beloved of all spring events and a glorious two day trip to the north (wouldn’t you know it?), complete with bonfires, swimming, kayaking, and a whole lot of good company. As I write this, I am actually already in prep to run the American booth at the International Festival, representing, as well, my Mason Nation! 🙂

Update: The Festival was a success! :) The two Mason Patriots independently holding down the U.S. booth.

Update: The Festival was a success! 🙂 The two Mason Patriots independently holding down the U.S. booth.

If I didn’t make my point quite clear with the previous list of terrific programs, the RRIS at IDC seems to genuinely understand the needs of (especially!) its exchange students and takes into consideration all our cultural differences. Seriously, from practically the first moments of my stay here, the RRIS proved to be a surefire support in many circumstances, but also pushed me just enough to dive deeply into the surrounding atmosphere of both the school and the country.

On a related note, I would like to explain briefly another aspect of the school, though not directly and officially associated with the RRIS, as a final demonstration of Israel’s surprisingly warm welcome so far. IDConnect is a program founded only just last semester by an outstanding member of the student body, Alick Friedman, and is available to exchange students exclusively. The idea is to pair one or two exchange students with one Israeli student, forming “buddies” (or connectors as we all call them) that should theoretically shed deeper insight into Israeli college and general life for those who are essentially clueless. I’ve got to say, the idea was brilliant, because the most exciting memories I have here can be linked back one way or another to IDConnect and the connectors. The 30 or so exchange students, even before meeting our connectors, shared a strong bond out of necessity, but with the start of the program came the start of an awesome network of friends and incredible companionship. Since that beginning, the exchange students have begun branching out on their own paths, but it is always both a relief and a wonderful surprise whenever we see the familiar faces of any connector in the world of an ever-present Israeli social life. Shout out to Alick, Yuvi, and all of the wonderful people who make the Spring 2014 IDConnect group such an incredible experience!

Connectors and exchange students at the first IDConnect event of the semester; Tel Aviv

Connectors and exchange students at the first IDConnect event of the semester; Tel Aviv

Conclusion

It is certainly not over yet, but my time in Israel has been enlightening, inspiring, and well-rounded by a balance of studies, adventures, spirituality, and self-discovery. While I travel to places I only ever dreamed about, I am also kept grounded in academics and feel the constant presence of a childhood religion. Most importantly, I am learning that no matter who I am or where I come from, such places do exist in the world where I can know that I belong to a passionate community and that, in Israel, perhaps such a community is a wonderful fit for me. I know there is more to discover on this wildly exciting journey, but for now, I will go with the flow and enjoy the opportunity to sit back and live fully in each moment as it comes to me. So until next time, dear readers, I wish you continued success on your own paths, wherever they may lead.

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