Five cities. Two sunrises. The Lowest Point on Earth. One mud bath. Two Passover Seders. Two rooftop hostel gardens. A 5 a.m. mountain climb. Seven long bus rides and one train ride. Old friends and new friends. Dancing across Israel. Life advice from 71 year old Peggy, a dorm mate in a hostel in Jerusalem. The best hummus in Israel. The best hot chocolate in the world. A literary café in Jerusalem. Spying on a wedding reception in Tel Aviv. Burning leavened bread in Be’er Sheva in preparation for Passover. A shepherd with his flock next to the Sea of Galilee. Coming home to Haifa.
It is hard to know how to begin to describe my spring break. Just as my friends and I thought as we were planning the trip, where do you begin a whirlwind tour of a country that has so much to offer? All I know is I am convinced more than ever that studying in Israel was the right decision. There are moments here that are hard and confusing, such as when I witnessed a young man hissing at an Israeli soldier in the Old City of Jerusalem. At times like these, I wonder what I have gotten myself into. Who am I to be a cheerful, curious tourist when the reality of the situation in Israel is very serious for so many people? But it is this confrontation with a human experience so different from my own that makes studying in Israel so incredible.
Another occasion in the past two weeks that showed me the high intensity of life in Israel was when my friend and I had Shabbat dinner with a lovely, generous Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem. They had an eighteen year old daughter named Shlomiya who was preparing to begin her army service in a few weeks. Army service is mandatory in Israel, women serve for two years and men for three. Observing Shlomiya and the mature, thoughtful way she spoke and acted throughout the evening, I thought of myself when I was eighteen, and how the most important thing on my mind was my next Spanish test. Constantly living on edge, young Israelis must mature quickly as they are faced with challenges that never crossed the minds of me and my American friends as we were growing up.
I spent the majority of my break with my friends Emma and Heather, fellow international students who attend Brandeis University in the U.S. I met Heather during the intensive Hebrew Ulpan at Haifa University at the beginning of the semester, but she is now doing a complete Hebrew immersion program at Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, during which she is not permitted to speak in English. To be completely honest, after the first day we spent together I did not have a very good attitude toward the situation. What was I thinking, spending my spring break with someone I can’t even have a normal conversation with? But within a couple of days, I was amazed by how Hebrew really started clicking for me. I had always thought I learned almost exclusively from reading and writing, but I was proved wrong as I learned more from a few days of conversations than I had in weeks of classes.
This semester has held some challenges for Heather. On top of the difficulties of having to speak Hebrew all the time, several weeks ago she had to run to the bomb shelter in her dorm several times as over ninety rockets were fired at Be’er Sheva from the Gaza Strip over the course of a few days. She said the Israelis in the shelter with her would sit and count the booms as the Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defense system, destroyed many of the rockets in mid-air.
I accomplished a lot of bucket list items over break – climbing to see the sunrise on the desert mountain fortress of Masada where almost one thousand Jewish rebels committed mass suicide rather than be taken by the Roman army, floating effortlessly on the buoyant salty water of the Dead Sea, and seeing the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee and set over the Mediterranean in the same day. Most importantly, though, I had a lot of time for reflection, and when new thoughts to ponder came my way I was able to soak them in, trying to expand my understanding of what it really means to live in Israel.