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Gratitude in the Q

By Sammy

Two weeks in a tiny room, shared with three other people.

Feel free to leave the room, as long as you are okay with losing $30,000 and being kicked off the program, deported, and banned from coming back to Israel for the next ten years. Someone from another program left the room to try and fix the Wi-Fi router and suffered the consequences, so we haven’t really tried bending the rules. At least we have a gorgeous view.

 While strict and relentless, these are the measures Israel has to impose in order to accept more than 16,000 Americans into their country amid the pandemic. While I’m upset that I cannot explore the streets of Jerusalem and meet others on the program, I understand the restrictions. So where does that leave me? With time. Lots and lots of time. During the year, I can never get enough free time. I’m constantly busy and want more time to relax. Now, I have an abundance of it. At first, I was bored and bitter. But then I realized what a valuable gift I was given. I had two entire weeks to sleep, relax, workout, read, catch up with friends (when the calls went through), write, converse, and learn Hebrew. This may seem like the most mundane schedule ever; however, after realizing how rare it is to have time without responsibility to school or a job, I started to appreciate the surplus of relaxing time instead of resenting it. And in doing so, the two weeks have somehow shot by. I know, two weeks in severely strict quarantine should have been the longest two weeks of my life, but they have somehow been a blur.

A mindset of gratitude truly allows you to live in the moment, enjoying the situation before yourself despite the circumstances. Since I found a way to be grateful for the two-week, no-nonsense confinement, I don’t think it’ll be hard to find ways to be grateful for every other aspect of the trip, starting with the country-wide three-week lockdown, which starts the day after quarantine is over. Once we are done with quarantine, we’ll be confined to the campus for the following three weeks due to the lockdown. However, following the quarantine, the three weeks of freedom to go anywhere on the small campus will seem incredible. Gratitude, I think, is one of the most underrated of emotions. There have been spells where I am constantly regretting the past and/or dreading the future, ignoring what’s before me. During those times, I find myself to be much less happy, as I’m completely missing the present. Without gratitude for the “NOW,” you miss out on your life. Gratitude is maybe the most important key to fulfillment and happiness. When people are sincerely grateful for what’s before them, they can be happy. Kohelet, one of the fabled Jewish scholars, debates the meaning of life. He constantly goes back to the notion that all is futile and finite, explaining that all you can truly do is be grateful and enjoy the pleasures of life.

Yet gratitude is also situational, elusive, and often difficult to achieve. An American may leave for the day, grabbing a can of soda, and be on his way. Yet an African who never tasted a pop drink in his life could grab the same can of soda with an immense amount of gratitude. The more you have, the harder it is to be grateful for the same things. By looking at the world and life as a whole, I have been able to find gratitude for the “NOW.” It can be hard to notice the simple pleasures of life that not everyone enjoys, such as friends, a healthy body, even glasses. Rather than look at the specific circumstances of a situation in regards to my life, I try to find something special that anyone could be grateful for, even in the seemingly “less desirable” situations. Even a two week quarantine can be seen as a blessing.

Silver Linings in Jerusalem

By Sami

On this quiet Shabbat evening I sit alone on the couch while my new roommates nap. There’s not much else to do at the moment. Jerusalem has restrictions in place requiring American students to quarantine for two weeks, and at times, without proper motivation (and with 108-degree weather), we find ourselves struggling to keep busy. I must acknowledge, however, that I lucked out to be put in quarantine with five guys who, apart from being incredibly nice, like to cook. Although I didn’t meet anyone from my program before getting off the flight to Israel, four of my five roommates were on my flight.

The moment I entered Terminal C at Newark International Airport I was already in Israel. Hundreds of Jews, young and old, crowded the check-in. My parents and I felt shocked both by how few safety precautions there seemed to be in place, but also by how many kippahs and head coverings we saw. While in line to check my bags, a boy with peyes, a button-down shirt, and a kippah introduced himself to me and asked about my plans in Israel. Before letting me answer, though, he began to talk about all of the different Yeshivot (educational institutions where generally more Orthodox Jews attend), where he and his friends were going and proceeded to ask me what I thought of them. “In all honesty”, I responded apologetically, “I don’t know much about Yeshivot or many other religious institutions where Jewish teens go. I’m going to Israel on a pluralistic program because I want to better understand the Jewish community in Israel and become acquainted with a part of my identity that my family and close community cherish deeply.” With that the boy, who seemed surprised by my unfamiliarity, gave me a kind smile and left to check his bags.

After a long awaited and dreaded goodbye from my parents, I proceeded to the gate. Again, I became overwhelmed by the enormous crowd of young Jews as I passed through a second, more intense, round of security. I knew very few people in Israel and didn’t know what to expect from this partially foreign country, so when I watched all the young men congregate together in excitement, talking about all the friends and family they’d visit as soon as arriving, I grew nervous. Of course, I was incredibly excited for the coming year in Israel, but did I really belong? I haven’t gone to Jewish school for six years and have become increasingly more secular as I’ve gotten older. Maybe Israel isn’t meant for me.

Luckily once I got on the plane, I found my friend Maia from home. Her much needed familiar face relieved my growing anxiety, and our long talks during the flight helped me remember why I chose to come to Israel in the first place. We both shared the same intimidated sentiment towards the pack of Yeshiva boys, but the two of us also belong to the same Jewish Latino community in D.C. that has a strong connection to the land of Israel. As I’ve become more secular, I feel as though I’ve started to view my community through an outsider’s lens, and although that has given me new insights, I still want to be able to understand through experience what Israel means to my community. So I’ve come to Jerusalem, the most holy Jewish city in the world, on a program where I’m one of the least religious students, and subsequently it feels a bit awkward. But I know why I’m here, and I believe, regardless of what state the country is in politically and with regards to Covid, that I will experience something incredibly important, worthwhile, and fun.

The last few days have seen the hottest recorded temperatures in Jerusalem since before the founding of Israel…and we have no air conditioning. But somehow this past week has still been one of the highlights of my year. Being locked in a room with five other guys helps you bond in a way that is simply impossible in any other circumstance. Just yesterday, after exercising on my tiny balcony, I did yoga with my roommates, made them a classic Mexican egg dish for breakfast, took a much-needed online Hebrew lesson with them, reorganized our fans into the perfect configuration, played board games for hours, and made banana bread with my five new friends. I participated as best I could as two of them led our room in blessings for our Shabbat dinner and felt incredibly welcomed as they patiently explained to me the customs and blessings that I was unfamiliar with. I’ve known these guys for only one week, and yet I feel as if I’ve grown up with them since early childhood

Unlike some other participants on my program, I have no intention of becoming more religious over the course of this year. Still, I hope to learn from my new modern-orthodox, conservative, reform, and reconstructionist friends about their own customs and beliefs. I originally also hoped to be able to explore Israel on my own during free weekends, but with the recent announcement of a nationwide lockdown, I may have to adjust my expectations for the year. Nevertheless, I find myself more excited now than ever over being part of this program and being surrounded by young adults who, like me, hope to learn from each other and expand each other’s understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

Three Weeks, Two Different Worlds

By Abby

First step of freedom! During quarantine, we were allowed on our small porch, but not on the stairs.

A lot of people say the secret to happiness is living with low expectations, but I disagree; how can you possibly be happy if you maintain a pessimistic outlook? Instead, I have adopted the no expectations approach. In my last blog, I had grumbled about the lack of information given to me about my program, but my ignorance worked to my benefit regarding my two-week quarantine. I wasn’t disappointed at the dingy apartment we were placed in, and I was surprised and pleased when the program manager mentioned we could sit outside. When I told anyone that I had quarantined for two weeks they flashed a pitying smile and asked if I went crazy. But, in fact, I enjoyed two of my most relaxing weeks ever. Although I was cooped up, I experienced an unexpected sense of freedom. Usually, when you have time off from school or you’re on vacation, you feel pressure to do something: meet up with friends or family, have a cultural experience, cook something… But since we couldn’t do anything in quarantine, we could just be. My roommate and I spent our days reading, exercising, sitting outside, and watching Israeli tv shows (pro tip: watch a show on reduced speed to improve your language skills).


Of course, despite a rather pleasant quarantine, we left the second we could. We had a free week before our program started, so like any youngster in Israel with time to kill, we headed to Tel Aviv! We had a blast doing the usual activities: going to the beach, buying fruit and chachkas in Shuk HaCarmel (the Carmel Market), and roaming the slightly disheveled, art-deco streets. We did, however, have one rather unusual experience. My friend read about an outdoor play at the Jaffa Theatre in the Jerusalem Post and asked if we could go. I had lacked cultural stimulation for the previous five months due to Corona, so I jumped at the chance to see a play. I was surprised that I not only loved the play but also understood most of it! We were so impressed with the acting that we approached the actors and asked them to sign a program as a memento. They stared back at us incredulously, so flattered that they invited us to their next show! I hope we can make it, but I’m not setting any expectations in stone.



Meeting the actors!
The most magical place on earth – the Tel Aviv beaches!

From Within

By Maia

I’ve probably spent more time in my apartment in the last two weeks than I will spend in the next few months. Two weeks ago, I boarded a flight to Israel with a folder full of immigration documents and an agreement that I would spend my first two weeks in quarantine without leaving my apartment. Luckily, I’ve been able to spend my time with my two roommates and followed a daily schedule that made my quarantine go by a lot faster. 

Each day, one of my roommates and I would wake up, unroll our yoga mats, and workout to a carefully curated selection of YouTube workout videos. This was honestly one of the most rewarding things I did during quarantine because, although we were locked inside, it made it feel that for a few minutes we exited are apartment and got in some movement. We would usually finish our workouts tired and sweaty and very grateful to be greeted with a box full of food waiting for us at our door. Lunch often consisted of chicken and popular Israeli side dishes such as Israeli salad, baba ghanoush, and hummus. At 2:00 pm, I would join a zoom class of other kids on my program and learn Hebrew with a local teacher. I learned a random but useful assortment of words that will hopefully help me order food at restaurants and explore Jerusalem without getting too lost. The following online class was taught by the parents of my friends in quarantine, who volunteered from their homes in the United States to teach about subjects they are experts on. Some of my favorites were “What is Freedom of Religion” taught by a law professor who pushed us to examine the ethics behind what religious practices can be supported by the U.S. government and “How to Make Peace—Or not— in the Middle East: Lessons from a Former State Department Negotiator.” For a relaxing end of the day, I’d join the zoom yoga or art class with my roommates. 


During the weekend, I had a break from my daily zoom activities and spent time reflecting and taking in the city. In Jerusalem, secular Jews are a minority, and from Friday through Saturday evening, the city goes to sleep. Despite being in a city it’s quiet. Occasionally, I’ll see a couple walk by but the people that regularly shop at the market across the street are gone and so are the cars that drive by. From my bedroom window, I can see the people in the apartment complex behind mine coming together to pray, some from their balconies and others spread across the lawn. Although it’s quiet, there’s a sense of unity and peace that radiates and that I could feel even from quarantine. To me, living in Jerusalem for a year is a commitment to a way of life in which I hope to value spirituality and religion in my daily life rather than only on Shabbat. The Israeli flags on Jerusalem-stone houses across the street from my apartment remind me of the historical and religious importance of where I am. At the same time, this overt nationalism reminds me of what a privilege it is to feel at home in a city that people different religious and ethnic backgrounds hold so closely. 

Yesterday my fourteen-day quarantine ended and I’m surprised that I’ll miss the time I had to reflect and spend time with my quarantine roommates. I’m finally meeting the people I regularly saw on zoom calls and walking down the street that I spent so much time looking at. I’m hoping that I’ll continue to learn from introspection in the way I did in quarantine and also begin to learn from people who experience Jerusalem differently than I do so I can further understand what makes Jerusalem a sacred but deeply contentious place. 

Far From Home

By Maia

Ever since Friday March 13th, the last day I stepped into a classroom, traveling to Israel to begin my gap year has seemed like my ticket out of the pandemic. I planned my gap year before the pandemic and luckily I have not had to change my plans. Knowing my next steps during a confusing time in the lives of many people has made me feel incredibly grateful for my circumstance and the chance to be a part of a cohort of Duke students on similar but diverse journeys. I see my year in Israel as a unique opportunity to learn in a different way and begin Duke with a better understanding of how I want to dedicate my time. I’ll be taking classes at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a center for pluralistic Jewish thought in Jerusalem, and for the first time, I will focus on my studies without the added pressure of receiving a grade. Even though I know very little about archaeology, I would like to intern at an archaeological dig once a week, something I would never otherwise have the opportunity to do.

To prepare for my gap year, I am attempting to master a few recipes as I will have to cook for myself and others. For the first time, I am spending many hours learning Hebrew on Duolingo. I’m still figuring out how I will fit a year’s worth of clothes into one suitcase and I am nervously awaiting my two weeks in quarantine once I arrive in Israel. I choose to select that I am “averagely clean” rather than “organized and proper” on my rooming survey. I’ll be living in a three-bedroom apartment, with six people and I was hoping that if I presented myself as “organized and proper” my roommates may be neat and clean people. Unfortunately, my family has strongly disagreed with this description of my cleanliness guiding me to honestly describe myself as “averagely clean.” Hopefully, my roommate will have a more generous opinion, and maybe at Duke, I can finally define myself as “organized and proper.”

In less than a month I will be living with a group of people, Israelis and North Americans with different backgrounds and experiences including religious observance. I’m looking forward to adapting to living with people who have grown up very differently from myself. I know I will likely be eating kosher food and maybe I will choose to accompany some friends to religious services. At the same time, I have no way of anticipating the everyday challenges and meaningful moments that will define my year abroad. That’s the daunting and great thing about taking a gap year.

The Transition

By Sammy

Our lives move so fast, we don’t even get to enjoy a transition. Without this pandemic, I would have gone straight from graduating to being an 8-week camp counselor to possible going straight to Duke. I would be jumping from one experience to another, without even realizing that I’m heading into the biggest change in my life. The pandemic has forced me to slow down, given me a surplus of time to reflect and prepare. I was talking with my friend, who just came back from the hospital after almost dying in a longboarding accident on the road. He told me through his bandages, “You never know when your life can completely change, so take it slow.” I gave him some advice too: “Don’t longboard.”

Many of my other friends complain that time is moving like cement these days, but graduating seniors have been given an opportunity to transition — an opportunity to prepare ourselves for the future before plunging in, taking the time to realize our lives will really never be the same.

“You’re taking a gap year? Seriously? Don’t you want to start college? Why are you putting your life on hold?” These questions repeated themselves throughout the end of high school, as my friends tried to understand why anyone would delay the college experience even by a year. I wouldn’t back down: “College will still be there in a year…Imagine learning and living in Israel! … Will you ever be able to have an experience like this again?” After a few more of these arguments and colleges releasing their 2020-2021 plans, I had convinced 6 of my friends to join me in Israel.

I realize now, even without the pandemic, that a gap year was always the best decision. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A unique experience. Most of all, a transition. I don’t know who I’ll be in a year or how I’ll change during the gap year, but I know that I’ll grow. I think it’s important to really know who you are when you get to college, so you can’t let anyone else tell you who you are. A year in Israel is a transition that I wish everyone can take, but it feels so unnatural to many Americans. Our culture pushes on us the same general goal to success (which apparently means happiness): work hard in school, go to a good college, get a good job, make money. Delaying that process by a year doesn’t make sense to many. In other cultures, like in Israel for example, kids are not pressured to grind for a couple more points and a letter grade. Instead, they accept the reality from a young age that at 18, they’ll be putting their lives on the line for their country in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). The culture creates a different type of people, in my opinion, happier and more genuine people, without this standard path to success. People, believing that the study/work/money process is the only real path to happiness, argue that taking a gap year is putting your life on hold. But that standard success story isn’t everyone’s future, especially outside of America. Surrounded by that Israeli culture and new experiences I’ll undergo a transition. I’ll reflect on the past, but more importantly, I’ll discover what my real goals are in life, my real priorities, and who I’ll be when I enter college. That’s not putting my life on hold. If anything, that’s discovering what I’ll make out of my life.

Pre-Israel Jitters

By Abby

I love making lists, whether it’s a post-it note to-do list or a messily scrawled grocery list. There is simply nothing more satisfying than a document that clearly conveys information.

Unfortunately, that is not the Israeli way; my program has not communicated what I should pack or what I should expect. In fact, almost everything I know about Mechinat Beit Yisrael is thanks to American alumni of the program. All alumni have their “two cents” about useful supplies, but everyone has recommended I bring Blundstones.

Consistent with go-with-the-flow Israeli culture, Blundstones are boots suitable for a morning of hiking, an afternoon of shopping, and then an evening of dinner and dancing. To Israelis, Blundstones are not merely boots but their own category of shoe. The only lamentable thing about them is that I’ve always found them quite unattractive.

Typically, I’m not one to succumb to social pressure; if I learned anything in high school, it’s to be proud of my quirks. I was prepared to show up in Israel Blundstone-less until the one other American girl doing my program said she had them. I rethought the issue; maybe they will give me some semblance of fitting in as one of four North Americans among 70 Israelis. The truth is that despite studying Hebrew for 15 years, mine is far from fluent; and, given my inability to follow American pop culture, who knows when I’ll understand Israeli cultural references.

A trait that comes with my love of list making is an inclination to be prepared, so I researched and wrote down possible Ulpan classes I could take to brush up on my language skills. The first Ulpan – literally meaning instruction, teaching, or studio – began in 1949 in Jerusalem to introduce new olim (immigrants) to Hebrew and Israeli culture. They are now widely offered at multiple levels, and I just completed an advanced virtual class through my local JCC (Jewish Community Center). Although the first few three hour zoom sessions were utterly draining, by the end of the four weeks, I was used to being in a Hebrew environment for that long.

One practice I found helpful and will continue is keeping a Hebrew word journal. Whenever a fellow student or I asked what a word meant/how to say a word, my teacher would write the Hebrew word in the chat. Throughout class, I diligently, yet sometimes frantically, wrote down every word so I could review them later. I am so glad I took the Ulpan class, but writing down 150 or so new words every day made me acutely aware of how much I still have to learn.

Now my Blundstone opening was not a red herring; if you haven’t guessed already, I caved and bought a pair of (not so) shiny, new Blundstones. The truth is, my Ulpan class will probably make a much bigger difference in my adjustment than my Blundstones, but who knows?! I have been dreaming of taking a gap year in Israel since eighth grade; even though I am beyond ecstatic for this life changing year, I never expected to be so anxious that I would buy a pair of boots in an effort to acclimate.

After seeing the Blundstones in my room every day for a couple weeks, they are no longer an eyesore and may even have grown on me. Now that I’ve cobbled together a packing list, studied my vocab words, and brainstormed activities to busy myself during quarantine upon my arrival, I feel I’ve prepared enough and am ready to rip the band-aid off. I know that after the initial language and culture shock, I will view the year that lies ahead not as a daunting challenge but as an eye-opening adventure.

On flexibility and planning a gap year

By Amichai
With my chevruta (learning partner), I am learning Talmud, specifically the tractate of Bava Kama, which is a book of Jewish law that discusses civil matters and deals with rules of damages.

When I first planned my gap year last spring, I thought that, having gone to SAR High School, a Modern Orthodox Yeshiva, I wanted to step out of the Yeshiva world and experience new things. So I picked Hartman, a pluralistic, co-ed, Israeli and American program, believing that going there for the year would be a great way to open up to new ideas and perspectives. While this idea sounded great in theory, I would soon realize that this was not the only thing I wanted my gap year to look like, in that my Jewish learning and spirituality were just as important and interesting for me to develop, not just studying political theory, literature or politics, subjects I could study with great excitement and depth at Duke. I missed many intellectual and spiritual things about yeshiva life, from the big things like the challenges and rigor of Gemara learning, analytic and rigorous text study and spiritual prayer, but also all the small things like “tishes” (small gatherings where singing of hymns and spirituals would take place), or even just the Yeshivish vibes which are so comforting, yet so hard, to try and explain. 

One of the biggest reasons I wanted to join Yeshiva is the sense of community. There were a lot of group activities at Hartman and they really tried to integrate all groups, but in the end I felt as though we were all too different from each other to feel like a true community. I really missed the relationships and deep connections I created with my teachers and Rabbis at SAR, and I knew that such relations are at the core of my new program, Yeshivat Aish Gesher. Being with people who are very different from me, in terms of culture, values and language led to my creating some great friendships at Hartman, but I missed bonding with people over a shared culture, values and experiences.
At Aish, this creation of community is done within the context of intellectual growth. For example, I am excited that at Aish there is an emphasis on programs which explore the logic of Judaism, the relationship of contemporary science to traditional Jewish modes of thought, and the tension between belief and rational thinking.
I came to realize, a bit late, that this should be a year for me of immersion in Talmud, Torah and Jewish text, coupled with spirituality and warm communit
For Chanukah, each member of the Yeshiva lit his own menorah and set of candles. While we each lit our own menorah, we came together as a community to light at the same time, said the prayers together, and sang chanukah songs. 
y building. This focus will give me a powerful tool with which to face the exciting challenges of college next year and beyond.

Jonah – First Month in Jerusalem

It’s been a month since I first arrived in Israel, and the experience so far has been unbelievable. For the first week, I stayed in the small desert town of Sde Boker, which is probably best described as a desert oasis. For someone who hasn’t been to Israel before, let me set the scene for you; you exit Ben Gurion Airport and you are immediately greeted by the skyline of Tel Aviv Beach to the west. To the east, after an hour bus ride, you’d approach the hills of Jerusalem. But, to the south, you see pure desert. As I glanced out the window of the tour bus leaving Tel Aviv, I saw the tall skyscrapers of Tel Aviv disappear as mountains of sand appeared and camels walked along the highway.
That first week was transformative—we did over ten hikes, and I really bonded with the rest of the kids on the program.
Still, I was excited to arrive in Jerusalem, where the majority of my gap year would take place. It’s not that I didn’t absolutely love my week in the desert, but after a four month-long summer where I worked in a restaurant six days a week, I was ready to get my gap year into full gear. Even though I have been to Israel many times before (I have a lot of family living here), the moment I stepped off the bus in Jerusalem felt just like the first time I had been to the city. I was relieved, excited and just plain happy. My gap year, that I have been looking forward to for years, had just begun.
Now, four weeks later, I’m packing up to leave Israel for my first trip abroad. Let me explain.
Kivunim, my gap year program, is a mix of classroom learning and field learning. One aspect of the curriculum is learning both Hebrew and Arabic, even though I’m already fluent in Hebrew. The second focus is to develop a better understanding of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. So, every four weeks, the entire group of fifty-five students will be taking a trip outside of Israel (this first trip is to Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey) where we will learn about these religions outside of our Jerusalem-centric lens.
But because I haven’t actually traveled anywhere outside of Israel yet, I figured that I’d focus on my time in Jerusalem. You can probably imagine that living less than a half mile from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Kotel (Western Wall) and the Temple Mount has its many perks. Just last week, we spent an entire afternoon analyzing the similarities and differences between Jaffa Gate (in West Jerusalem) and Damascus Gate (in East Jerusalem) in the Old City. I was fascinated by the diversity of these areas, but was also aware of the very subtle differences between these two areas. For example, Damascus Gate was surrounded by stores and markets with all-Arabic signage, while at Jaffa Gate I found over five languages displayed (Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian and Spanish). As I sat observing my surroundings, I wondered what this signified and what I should take away from the visit.

While the academics have been great, I’ve also found a lot of time to explore and engage in modern Israeli culture. I spent last weekend in Tel Aviv (which, by the way, feels like a totally different world than Jerusalem) with all of my friends. Yesterday, in Jerusalem, I went to an Israel vs. Poland soccer game, where I really got a sense of true Israeli culture.  I’ve never been to a soccer match before, so when the Israeli team was playing badly and HUNDREDS of paper airplanes began flying onto the field, I was totally confused (apparently, in soccer, fans throw paper airplanes onto the field when their team is playing badly). I was in the very top row of the stadium, so my paper airplane had no chance of making it to the field.

I’ve never been to a soccer match before, so when the Israeli team was playing badly and HUNDREDS of paper airplanes began flying onto the field, I was totally confused (apparently, in soccer, fans throw paper airplanes onto the field when their team is playing badly). I was in the very top row of the stadium, so my paper airplane had no chance of making it to the field.
I have to be honest— the worst part about being in Israel so far is that Duke Basketball games air at 2 AM, which is pretty rough on my sleeping cycle. I’m usually tired for class.