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The Israeli-Jewish Springtime Trifecta

By Abby

Every year around springtime Jews worldwide, and especially in Israel, celebrate three days: Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Casualties of Terrorist Attacks), and Yom Ha’azmaout (Independence Day).
Yom Hashoah is a really powerful day at home as well as here in Israel. At home, my school would bring in a Holocaust survivor or a survivor’s family member to tell us his or her story, and we would stand for a minute-long siren played on the school loudspeaker. Here, one of my friends’ grandfathers told his story, and we stood for the siren that was blasted over the country-wide loudspeaker. In Israel, everything stops during the siren: all meetings, TVbroadcasts, vehicles on the streets and highways stop and everyone stands.
Six days later was Yom Hazikaron. I didn’t have the highest of expectations because, at home, the ceremonies we had at school were always contrived and lacking immediacy. It began with an 8:00 pm country-wide siren — in the Jewish calendar days start and end at nightfall not at midnight — followed by a ceremony. We sat in a circle on the floor, and anyone who knew of a fallen soldier or a casualty of a terrorist attack told their story and a song was sung and a candle lit in their honor. We sat there for 4 hours because around 25 out of 70 had stories to tell about family friends, neighbors, cousins, cousins’ friends…The stories made me sad, the songs made me weep, and the number of stories made me feel guilty. As a Jew, Israel belongs to me just as much as it does to any native-born Israeli. But can I just sit happily in America and come to Israel whenever I want while Israelis die left and right? What kind of a Zionist am I, choosing to go to Duke over serving in the IDF (Israeli DefenseForces)?
The next day I woke up early and took the bus to Har Herzl (Israeli National Cemetery) with some friends for the 11:00 am nationwide siren. Families of fallen soldiers, current soldiers, and people like me who wanted to pay their respects properly were huddled around all the graves. You can’t get more immediate than standing at the foot of a grave of a fallen soldier.
That evening, I attended a tekes ma’avar (transitional ceremony) marking the end of YomHazikaron and the start of Yom Haatzmaut. It began with some slow songs and then we raised the Israeli flag, symbolizing the rising of spirits. I performed in a dance with a boy from the neighborhood whom I mentor. Then I attended a Hallel service, a prayer of praise sung on specific celebratory days. Later that night my friends and I went to center city. Usually, there are a bunch of free concerts in the middle of Jerusalem that you can go to, but because of Corona you had to reserve tickets; while we didn’t score tickets to the hottest concerts, we went to a cover band concert of Israeli classics. I was happily surprised that I knew most of the songs and had a great time singing and dancing. We spent the rest of the night enjoying the festive atmosphere of the city (think Time Square NYE). I got a couple hours of sleep and then went to two friends’ family BBQs. The meat was incredible and let’s just say my stomach was both satisfied and furious at me.
Yom Haatzmaut was a thrilling 24 hours, but, in general, I don’t think it quite reached its potential – a sentiment a lot of my Israeli friends agreed with. The day had a joyous celebratory atmosphere of eating, singing, drinking, and dancing with family and friends, but I think the presumed pride got lost in the desire to enjoy the celebrations.
These three days galvanized my inner Zionism, and I have a lot of thinking to do about how these feelings fit in with the rest of my life and values. I wish I could elaborate more on this last sentence, but I’m not yet at that stage. I can tell you, however, that I am ecstatic about attending Duke in the meantime and learning about the many facets, wonders, and challenges of America.

Shifting to the City

By Sammy

Four months flew by in a flash. Four months in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Though I’ve known we’d be moving to Tel Aviv the whole time, I didn’t acknowledge how immense a transition it would be. Two diverse cities, both melting pots of cultures and religions, yet at the same time, completely opposite. To be honest, the difference only really hit me when playing Spikeball on the Tel Aviv Beach. I turned in a circle, taking in the light blue water, pedestrians zooming by on scooters, and towering buildings amid a bustling city. Less than a few weeks prior, I was playing the same sport with the same people, but instead my view consisted of a hilly landscape, a shining golden dome, and the ancient Western Wall. How could both these cities be part of the same country?

Birthright proved to be the perfect transition. Leaving our rooms in Jerusalem, our homes for the last four months, we embarked on a week of touring the country. We trekked up and down the whole of Israel, hitting all the sites from Haifa in the North to Eilat in the deep South. Each city felt like its own country, with a unique population made up of its own milieu of immigrants. Our guide taught us an interesting concept: ask any Israeli where they were born, where they served in the army, and where their parents are from, and we could generally infer their political opinions. Each city has its own circumstances, immigrants, and perspectives. Somehow, Israel seemed a state of many countries. In Haifa, a much less religious area, Russian immigrants dominate neighborhoods of the city. In Eilat, some Israelis can see the borders of Egypt and Jordan from their windows. We even traveled to Sderot, where brave Israelis live just miles from the Gaza border. There, almost 40% of children have PTSD from the constant rocket attacks. Depending on one’s location, people have between fifteen and five seconds to find safety in a bomb shelter! Even the parks, where children play everyday, were lined with these shelters.



We walked as close as we could to the Gaza border wall, led by one of the locals. To my deep surprise, her words were not bitter. She called the Gazans her neighbors, telling us of the family friends she had across the wall from before Israel gave the land away. She gave us ceramics with symbols of peace to stick on the wall, despite the constant aggression with Gaza.


Birthright was cut short after a week however, due to the COVID-19 lockdown imposed by the Israel government. We found ourselves quickly whisked away to the city of Tel Aviv, where we were more likely to see skyscrapers than synagogues from our windows.

A new sense filled us: independence. We were cooking our own meals now (sometimes with disastrous results), and finding our own internships. After Spikeball on the beach and finding an internship at a high frequency trading start-up, I thought I grasped the fact that we were living in a real city. Then my friends and I had our phones and wallets stolen. In my private Jewish high school, we did not even have locks on our lockers. We left our stuff wherever, trusting in a moral Jewish community. Often, when people come to Israel, they assume that because most everyone shares the same religion, there is a mutual trust among Israeli citizens. That idea seems foolish now, but in the places I and others on my program grew up, “Jewish” felt like “trustworthy.” However, that clearly was not the case. We tracked my last phone location from Find IPhone to an obscure bush in a random park, finding our empty phone cases and wallets strewn about. Our cash was gone, but our cards and IDs were thankfully still there. We were living in a city now. I might not have realized it before, but all my life — and I’m sure others on my program feel the same way — I’ve felt that I’ve been protected by some sort of safety net. Throughout school, it’s easy to assume you have something to fall back on. You have your shared community, shared routine, and a simple justice system: break rules, you’re punished; excel, and you’re rewarded. You had a family to go back home to every night that could help you with any problem. I had a rough understanding of the concept of “the real world” before this trip — leaving school, making a life for yourself. However, I can’t say that I ever really understood it. With independence comes the hard truth that you’re responsible for everything in your life. Making sure you’re healthy, safe, and thriving. There’s no plan in place to ensure your success, and no clear and swift justice system to make bad things good again. This second semester is going to be a fabulous and shocking learning experience for many of us. We are in charge of our own schedules and our own well-beings, and have to deal with the troubles life brings us without always having external help. I’m not worried about this new responsibility, but instead excited to take care of myself and see how I thrive. A new city, a new lifestyle, and a new independence.

Sincere Happiness

By Sammy
Self-confidence. Gratitude. Think beyond yourself. Don’t worry. Don’t be a victim. Master your mind. Over the last 5 weeks, Rabbi Dov Ber taught us these integral steps to happiness as part of his seminars. Through Seidel’s Jewish Information Center in Jerusalem, our program has had the opportunity to listen to the venerated Rabbi Dov Ber’s teachings once a week for free.
While half of our lessons with the Rabbi consist of topics like God and the Torah, the Rabbi fills the other segment with lessons to achieve authentic happiness. In our first lesson, Rabbi Dov Ber explained to us the idea of feeling good about ourselves for the right reasons. We went around the room, sharing one quality of which we were proud, and we were sent back with homework. We had to list more everyday, as well as qualities that we wanted to refine. In doing this, Dov Ber started us on the path of truly loving ourselves.
This last Saturday, the Seidel Jewish Information Center set up my friends and I with a Shabbat lunch at an Orthodox family’s household. While eating a spicy dish, our hostess taught us a valuable lesson: “Whenever I eat spicy or sour foods, I initially feel displeasure, but I am able to eventually enjoy the taste. This makes me think of the negative qualities that HaShem (God) gave us. Instead of hating ourselves for these qualities, we work to transform and overcome them, and in doing so, we improve ourselves and please God even more than we would have otherwise.” Despite never meeting Dov Ber, this mother had taught me the exact same lesson: focus on improving each individual trait and learn to fully love oneself.
In the second week, Dov Ber taught us the integral lesson of gratitude, focusing on what we have instead of what we do not. Looking over at the city of Tiberias, across the Sea of Galilee, my friends and I shared our immense gratitude to be in Israel.
In the third week, Dov Ber taught us about thinking beyond ourselves. However, to my surprise, he did not ask everyone to immediately begin thinking about others. Rather, he asked each of us to first focus on ourselves, explaining that we are not able to help others if we have not already helped ourselves. Once we have accomplished that, we can focus on others.
In the fourth week, Dov Ber told us not to worry, to realize that we can always overcome a challenge. He told us about his father being diagnosed with cancer, and while having compassion, he did not worry. This appeared somewhat cold to me, but the logic of the reason made sense: if it does not help the situation, why worry?
In the fifth week, he taught us never to play the victim and always to be a winner. Even if we are the clear victim, we should never act like it. In the last session, Dov Ber told us about mastering our mind. He gave us an analogy about taking the bus. If a bus is not going in the direction we want, why get on that bus? We as humans have the tendency to ride with our negative thoughts, letting regrets, what ifs, and depressing ideas take us to darker places. By mentally refusing each of these “buses,” and instead traveling to where we want to go, we can become more positive people.
I took these ideas with me when I stayed with our dear family friend David Coleman for Shabbat. My dad and I first met David in America when we did a magic show/balloon animals for his son’s birthday party. For the first time, I was able to come visit him in his hometown Neve Yaakov. Neve Yaakov is the largest Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in all of Jerusalem — an especially special place to be on the Jewish day of rest. I knew even before arriving that I would be inspired after staying over at David’s. Despite his family suffering a great tragedy, he is still one of the most positive people I know. Throughout the Shabbos, we spent the time studying at the dinner table, playing with his son and the neighbors, praying, and keeping the Sabbath.
We shared stories, and David explained his mindset on life. In his words, I heard the teachings of Dov Ber, noticing the similar methods of staying positive.
It was also extremely interesting to hear him speak about his lifestyle and the role of gender in his society. He told me of the classes he and his wife both had to take before marriage. These classes detailed the specific roles the husband and wife each need to take on for a successful Orthodox marriage. While someone may hear David and think of his society as sexist, David explained how they simply acknowledge different roles of men and women. It appeared as though the Orthodox community was not saying that men and women were not equal or do not deserve the same rights, but rather thought that men and women were different in their thinking and needs. It was fascinating that every individual took specific classes to outline how to successfully partner with the opposite sex. We talked for hours about our societies, and despite our different lifestyles, David still employed the same techniques that we were exercising to stay positive.
Throughout my time in Jerusalem, studying happiness as well as Jewish values and Jewish wisdom has been truly inspiring. I hope to be transformed by the end of the year into someone that can easily accomplish each of Dov Ber’s steps, achieving long-lasting and deep happiness while benefiting the world around me at the same time.

The Silence of the Desert

By Sami

The silence of the desert was so powerful that I could hear the blood rushing through my head. Only a single fly would occasionally steal my attention away

With zero light pollution, the only light for miles came from our truck and, eventually, just a campfire.

from the awe-inspiring sunset over the canyon. Once finished with my accustomed ritual of squatting like an animal to relieve myself, I turned to walk up the hill from where I came. The purple orange sky faded behind me as ascended, my footsteps crunching softly over the untouched soil. 


Then, in the very instant that I reached the summit, the canvas shifted. The sound of a training Israeli fighter jet breaking the sound barrier above me shook the earth beneath me. I noticed that the ground was now firmer, having been compacted by hundreds of feet before mine. The sky no longer seemed so illuminating, as the artificial lights from the truck at the center of our campsite penetrated the dimming atmosphere.  

The following sunrise at six in the morning.

The laughter of my fellow campmates echoed through the desert valley. My sense of smell returned to me as I descended the hill; the chicken stir fry was almost ready. Soon after my hunger returned as well. The remaining tents were up and I saw everyone lining up to serve themselves, so I turned my saunter into a scurry and quickly rejoined the group. 

When I planned this three-night hiking trip to the Negev for my program, I hoped it would allow us all to catch our breath and to explore a new part of Israel. Yet I had no idea how impactful a transition from pandemic city life to open nature would be. Finding myself alone, with no sounds, no lights, no mask, in a vast open desert gave me the change of perspective I needed to appreciate both the wild and the civilization from which I came. Leaving my isolation in the desert, I felt a sincere loss of peace that I had not found for many months in Jerusalem. At the same time, however, I felt comfort in reentering the semi-civilization of my campsite and was reminded of how brutal and indifferent the wild can

be. I returned from my trip understanding the need for balance. The fast-pace lifestyles many of us live can be invigorating and full of purpose, but we also need to create time for ourselves to be unplugged from such chaotic routines and to appreciate the beautiful world we call home. 

Our final day of hiking through Ein Avdat National Park.

Structure, Flexibility, and Spontaneity 

By Maia

 For the first two months of being in Israel, each week felt like a new adventure. My time in Israel wasn’t like my life back home where I had a daily routine. Instead, I spent two weeks in quarantine, one week living at a hostel near the old city in Jerusalem, and a few weeks learning remotely due to the nationwide lockdown. 

The program I am on has finally landed on a steady routine that will likely last the rest of the year. I volunteer at a daycare for children from low-income backgrounds on Sunday. I spend Monday and Tuesday taking classes on ancient Jewish texts, philosophy, and US-Israeli relations. I intern at a Jerusalem-based think tank based on Wednesday. On Thursday I spend the day taking classes and wrapping up the week. Friday and Saturday are my favorite days because I get to celebrate Shabbat with the rest of my group. I now know that Monday and Tuesday are my most busy days and that Wednesday is fun but requires a lot of focus for me to be productive. 

Having a routine reminds me of life in high school. Back in high school, I learned to dread Monday, love Friday, and spend my weeks looking forward to the weekend. Being so far from home, my new routine has given me stability and a sense of normalcy, but it’s also been a challenge learning to view routine as a guideline and not a restriction.   

To ensure that we don’t have to keep to a restrictive routine, my program allows us to plan day trips, encourages the Americans to spend the weekend at the homes of Israeli participants, and lets us spend time in different parts of the country for a few days each month. It has been a wonderful way to understand Israeli society and come back to the program excited to learn and think more freely. 

 During the first weekend I spent away from the program, I traveled to my Israeli friend’s house in Ramat Hasharon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. After living in a dominantly religious city for almost two months, it was a bit shocking to experience a weekend visiting a city where people drive on Shabbat and the beach is lively with young people enjoying the sun. 


The next weekend, I traveled to my roommates’ house in Kfar Adumim, a town in the West Bank. It was a wildly different experience. I decided to observe Shabbat experience it the way her family does, without using electronics and without creating anything, in order to truly rest. For one of the few times in my life, I spent a day without turning the lights on, writing, and texting my friends in the United States. After each weekend away from my apartment in Jerusalem, I felt more relaxed than I used to in high school after a weekend spent relaxing at home. 


Although it’s important to have a routine in order to be productive and maintain a sense of stability, I’ve found a lot of value in switching up my routine while on my gap year. This is a year where I am striving to live each moment intentionally and understand the meaning behind how I choose to spend my time. Choosing to wake up earlier to go for a run and see Jerusalem early in the morning or even going to spend a weekend in the West Bank has allowed me to experience Israel in an authentic way. Each time I push myself outside of my routine I feel more engaged in my classes and my daily experiences. So far, my gap year has given me a balance between structure and flexibility while allowing room for spontaneity. I now know that this balance is important for me and something for which I will strive once at Duke. 

Growing Up Again

By Abby

Everyone said that this year would be a new chapter in life, but it feels more like an entirely new book. At home, I was always the “mom” of the group, but here in Israel, it feels like I’ve started the life cycle anew.


I had to wake up at 4:45 to go to Beit Shemesh for an archeological dig, but at least I got to enjoy this sunrise.

In the beginning of my program, I felt like a baby. I was always wide eyed, not knowing what was going on but trying to absorb my surroundings as much as possible. I needed a lot of sleep because my brain was always in overdrive coping with life in Hebrew. And similar to how people stop on the street to coo over a cute baby, Israelis gave me a lot of attention because I am the exotic American girl.


In the last three months I feel as if I’ve grown to be an eight year old; I’m like a kid sitting at the adult table. In classes and group conversations I catch a fair bit of the dialogue, but sophisticated words and cultural references go over my head. I understand enough that I want to participate but I’m incapable of articulating myself fully in Hebrew, and I feel awkward constantly sharing incoherent sentences. I typically try to set an early bedtime for myself, but I usually end up going to sleep an hour, or two, or three after said bedtime. Perhaps the way in which I most resemble a child is through the connections I have with others here. There are many people whom I enjoy hanging out with, people I can laugh and sing and even cry with, but I can’t tell you personal details or idiosyncrasies about most people nor can most about me. My Hebrew is just not at a level where I can express myself enough for people to know the real me.


The one thing that has saved me as I gradually hack at the language barrier is journaling every night. I prefer typing than writing, so I have an app on my phone where I write down what I did, feelings I had, thoughts I wish I could have conveyed that day… Even getting in bed at 2:00 a.m. after a fun night, I can end up writing for 30 minutes because my brain is just swirling with hazy thoughts and putting everything down on paper ensures I can fall asleep and wake up with a clear head.



While I am infinitely grateful that my peers here have been like parents to me, supportive and patient, I’m excited to “grow up” more and forge real friendships.

A Lot Has Happened, Here Are My Takeaways

By Abby

To say a lot has happened in the last five weeks would be an understatement. I spent four days in the desert meeting 70 Israelis; I spent Shabbat at an American friend’s house; I moved into my apartment at the mechinah for our five day opening seminar; I went to my cousin’s house for Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and then quarantined there for two weeks because of a corona outbreak at my program (fortunately I didn’t get sick and those who did had a mild case); and then I spent a few days with a friend from my program whose family made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) from South Africa 9 years ago. Too much has happened to write about everything, and frankly, I don’t want to dwell on my second quarantine… so instead here are nine things I’ve learned/experienced.

  1. Israelis speak super fast and mumble; I swear half the time they aren’t saying words, merely stringing random syllables together.
  2. It is acceptable to eat salad – cucumbers and tomatoes and if you’re lucky peppers or some lettuce – with tachina (tahini) at every meal.
  3. You have to lean into the awkwardness because five minutes of discomfort can lead to an hour long, wonderful conversation.
  4. Though Israelis are more blunt and brisk than Americans in impersonal situations they are infinitely more welcoming and friendly in personal ones. After brief introductions, where my accent gave me away as American, everyone was inviting me to their homes for the weekends we have off. We are still teenagers, so I do sense cliquey inclinations in a few people, but it is staggering how much more open and supportive Israelis can be than Americans.
  5. You never know what’s going to happen until it’s about to happen. As I have said before, conveying information is not Israelis’ strong suit, but this shortcoming is exacerbated by Corona’s ever changing restrictions and my mediocre Hebrew comprehension. I frequently miss bits of information or just don’t catch on to certain things. It’s been hard transitioning from always being on top of everything to always being clueless.
  6. People have more children in Israel. As an icebreaker, we all went around and spoke about our families; I was shocked when person after person said they had three, four, five siblings. Some had even more. I am one of two that comes from a family of two kids, and there are no only children. Stereotypically, religious families have a lot of children, but now, even secular Israelis have a lot. In a religiously affiliated country, sometimes religious customs/actions/imperatives simply become part of the culture.
  7. The lazy Sunday that all Americans cherish does not exist here! Sunday-Thursday is the Israeli work week, Thursday is “going out night,” and Friday is spent cooking/preparing for Shabbat (which starts Friday night and ends Saturday night). Most of the country shuts down starting Friday afternoon for Shabbat. Coming from The City That Never Sleeps, I’m not used to grocery stores and drugstores closing and public transportation not running for a whole day.
  8. Many Israelis smoke cigarettes, some habitually and some just socially. Every time my friend lights a cigarette, I open my mouth in shock but then quickly close it so I don’t choke.
  9. And finally the one you have all been waiting for (if you read my first blog post)…an update on my Blundstones. Almost everyone at the mechinah has a pair, so when I wear mine they all exclaim “ישראלי ממש את ,אבי” (Abby, you’re so Israeli). The only thing is that I own black ones, whereas almost everyone here wears tan/brown ones. I guess my shoe choice reflects that as much as I try to fit in and immerse myself into Israeli culture, I will always be American.
    My cousins eating in the sukkah (a traditional hut built for the Jewish holiday Sukkot)

Being Part of a Social Experiment

By Maia

The program I am on is called “Hevruta,” translating to ‘partners’ in Hebrew. As the only gap year program made half of North Americans and half of Israelis we are a bit of a social experiment. The Israeli Ministry of Health calls us an organic family because while we might not be a family, we are trying to live like one. In my apartment, we are seven girls all from different religious and cultural communities. My roommates are Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrachi Jews coming from homes in New York City and settlements of the West Bank. We are reconstructionist, conservative, orthodox, and secular. The only thing that binds us together is that we are all Jewish and that we now live together. Weekly, this results in challenges in figuring out what to cook and how to observe the sabbath in a way that makes everyone happy. At the same time, it’s an enriching experience. We all have different dreams of how we want to live in the future. Hearing my roommate’s dream to live on a farm in the middle of the desert inspires me to think about how I want to live in the future – not just what classes I want to take in college. 

Israel is now under a national lockdown to reduce the number of coronavirus cases. This has meant that the Israelis on my program have had to spend over a month away from home instead of returning home every other weekend as expected. Ideally, the American participants would go home with them to experience Israeli culture more authentically. Many of us Americans came to Israel only expecting to see our families at the airport when we return home. Unlike American college students that often live on a college campus far from home, Israeli young adults see their families a few times a month during their mandatory military service. The pandemic has exposed many cultural differences between the American and Israeli participants. The organizers of the program have worked tirelessly to find a way to let the Israelis go home for a weekend while keeping everyone feeling safe. At the same time, these current challenges have forced us to lean on each other during difficult times and strengthened our bond. 

In the last few weeks, we have been studying the relationship between American Jews and Israelis and questioning why we have chosen to be here, building relationships with people from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds. For many years what kept Jews together was a blood-relationship, shared belief, and shared hardship. Since the creation of the state of Israel, many of these ties have weakened. There is more inter-marriage among non-orthodox Jews, many Israeli Jews are secular, and anti-Semitism is something that many American Jews have never encountered. So what is the goal of strengthening a weakening bond between Israeli and American Jews? In the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the name of my program “Hevruta”, partners. At first, I thought the name was about learning in partners, something we will be doing throughout the year. Recently, I’ve been thinking that maybe it is the goal – to become partners in preserving a Judaism that is tolerating and accepting of different traditions. This is something that my roommates and I have been working towards by having a kosher kitchen and observing the sabbath in public spaces. While these efforts are small, I think they are the first steps towards us becoming partners and hopefully a family. 

A New Independence

By Sammy

An integral part of life is conversing with new people, making first impressions, and forming relationships. While meeting people is always exciting, after bursting out of a two-week strict quarantine into a crowd of 300 Americans, Latin Americans, and Israelis, we were all a bit overwhelmed. Conversations were a bit slow to start.

“Great weather we’re having!”

“Thanks, you too. Ah…I mean…yeah.”

“Hi I’m Chicago from Sammy… Crap.”

However, we overcame our initial shock and soon, we were leaping to meet one another. Hebrew, Spanish, and English resounded in my ears as I introduced myself to new people, forgot their names, and reintroduced myself five minutes later. My roommates and I headed back to our room after our first late night on campus, fascinated about the diversity on the campus. After conversing with native-speakers in their languages, learning about other cultures, and exploring the campus, I knew that this was going to be a unique semester.

Lockdown was tough at first. Right after the quarantine, Israel went on a nation-wide lockdown, restricting us to the campus of the Machon L’Madrichim. The institution is home to numerous youth groups and movements from around the world, offering various classes, fabulous teachers, and real-life application from tours throughout Israel. However, as all the major Jewish holidays were back-to-back during September-October, classes didn’t start for the first two weeks, and we could not leave the campus. While the area was better than my cramped room, I was itching to explore the streets of Jerusalem. Yet all of the participants on our program had a remarkably positive outlook. Being stuck on campus allowed everyone to come together as a group, instead of going out each night in our own cliques. Often, the first couple weeks with a new group are filled with surface-level conversations, simple questions, and friendly small talk; however, I immediately started talking with others about our perspectives on life, challenges we’ve faced, and hopes for the future. During the day we participated in bonding programs and had various lectures about Israeli topics (culture, cinema, wars). Disappointed by the lack of organized services for the High Holidays, my friends and I coordinated with the Latin Americans to run powerful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. After services in the day, the nights consisted of competitive soccer games between the Latin Americans and the “gringos.”

Yet I was still missing a feeling of independence, of freedom in a way. As a new friend explained to me, “I took a gap year so that I can fall down and learn to pick myself up.” While grateful to be among such an interesting group, I felt enclosed in the gates, missing out on the independence I expected to have every night out in the city. Thus, when I heard we were traveling down south to Kibbutz Ketura for a couple days, I was elated. Kibbutzim are collective, socialist communities throughout Israel, with a focus on agricultural production. Living on the Kibbutz among the tight-knit community, surrounded by mountains in the deep desert, I felt my first real sense of freedom in Israel.

With new experiences and new settings, people grow closer. During the day at the Kibbutz, we worked the fields, volunteering to help pick nuts and dates. At night, we wandered around the Kibbutz and in the various surrounding areas, breathed in the fresh desert air, and looked at the countless stars in an unpolluted sky.

Classes began upon returning from the Kibbutz, and I was met with an intense schedule full of courses unlike anything I’d seen (I’ll save the details for another blog). On one excursion, we traveled to this area that overlooks all of Jerusalem. Looking over the entire city among new friends, I was filled with excitement and hope for the year: diverse friends, undiscovered places, distinct classes, and a unique sense of freedom and self-care that I had not yet encountered.

This year will be undoubtedly unique and, with the independence I’m given, entirely in my hands. It’ll be what I make of it—who I meet, where I’ll go, and what I’ll push myself to learn.



Why Journal

By Sami

Last May, I decided to start writing regularly in a journal so that I could improve my awful handwriting. Now that my penmanship has improved, however, I’ve started to notice the many other positive effects that journaling has had on my life since I started six months ago. Especially now, while on my gap year in Israel, I’ve found journaling to be extremely meaningful and have been pleasantly surprised to see so many of my peers feel the same way. 

The first few weeks of my program were relatively uneventful, as it began with a two-week-long quarantine and led into a three-day-long desert trip that saw many activities canceled due to an oppressive heat wave. I might have overlooked all of the fun I had in those weeks had I not had my handy journal with me the whole time. Every day I made sure to take note of my many seemingly insignificant experiences. Looking back on my notes now, I can see that writing down those small details allowed me to better appreciate the experiences I did have and subsequently made quarantine and my trip itself more enjoyable. I believe that journaling can be useful for everyone because, in addition to being a tool for appreciation, it can help you process your thoughts and reactions so that you can be more intentional about how you move through life. Whenever I’ve had a bad day, I’ve found it helpful to write down my emotions, because I can then process my experiences more rationally and frequently come to the realization that there’s a lot less to worry about than I initially thought. Not only that, this process also helps me figure out where I’ve made mistakes so I can then improve myself on a daily basis. Furthermore, because I have my goals written down, I hold myself more accountable when I lose track of those goals. 

The beautiful thing about writing in a private journal is that there are no restrictions and no filters. Some days I choose to describe an event minute by minute with extreme detail; other days I choose to illustrate my emotional state through a poem. Because there are no guidelines when it comes to journaling, there’s also no pressure. No matter how long or detailed or grammatically correct my entry is, I always put my pen down in satisfaction knowing I’ve managed to unravel a piece of my intricate mind.