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Unexpected changes feel like the theme of this year, especially for those of us on gap years. A few weeks ago, I spent four days in an intense seminar on the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. I listened to twenty-three speakers with a range of opinions and diverse contributions aimed at resolving or easing the conflict. The seminar gave me some clarity on my political views, and also emphasized how stagnant the conflict has been in the last few years and especially since the beginning of the pandemic. Visiting some of the most contentious, awful places of tragedy in Jerusalem and the West Bank gave me the sense that although things have been stagnant for some time, the lack of progress had not meant an acceptance of the current situation but that it was only a matter of time until things boiled over. With recent escalations during the last few weeks and on Jerusalem Day, the celebration of the Israeli presence in Jerusalem, and the capture of the city during the Six-Day War of 1967, we are now in the most intense state of conflict in seven years.
My opinions that slowly crystallized and became more nuanced during the conflict seminar I participated in now feel irrelevant. In a matter of days, I’ve learned that opinions stop mattering when people are dying. I’m living in such a different social environment than the one I see on social media. In Israel, it feels like, regardless of what people believe, everyone just wants the suffering to end. It feels impossible to engage with people across the world arguing over which side is right and whose situation justifies violence. Frankly, I find it impossible to understand hatred and the spread of false information when I only feel pain for those around me. Sure, I disagree with certain actions and policies but it’s not something I can think about right now, let alone rationally.
I don’t know what this period of my gap year will mean for me in the long run. I will not forget it, nor do I want anyone to live through this reality. I know that this last month will require months of processing, and I’ll slowly derive meaning and a sense of purpose and action. Sadly, in less than a month my program ends I’ll fly back home. In a weird way, my year is ending similarly to how it started. I’m ending my year in a sort of quarantine, unable to go to parts of Jerusalem and Israel that are unsafe right now. This means I have the privilege of spending my last moments more intimately hanging out with my friends in our apartment, supporting each other through these difficult days. I don’t know if it diminishes from the moment to acknowledge the beautiful connections during times of pain. We hold on to each other more tightly, and hopefully the love we feel for those far from us, that fuels emotional arguments on social media, will be the hope that pushes us out of this moment.
As I’ve begun thinking about moving onto Duke’s campus next fall, I’ve been wondering how much I’ll miss living in my dorm in Jerusalem. As much as I am looking forward to moving into college dorms, I’ve only now started to appreciate how good I have it here. Of all the ways I’ve changed and grown over the last eight months, the comfort I feel living full time among other students and the amount I’ve matured socially has really become apparent. I believe that’s largely due to the fact that I’ve not only lived in the same building as sixty-five other students, but I’ve been on the exact same schedule as all of them too. Whereas in college, I’ll likely run into a few dorm mates occasionally and spend a few social hours a day in my hall, this year (largely due to Covid) I’ve spent most of my free nights together with my entire program in our small building. Although it felt a little overwhelming at first, living in the same apartment with four other people makes getting bored pretty difficult, and when I am bored I know I have dozens of friends within a thirty-second walk from my door. Because of our constant social atmosphere, within eight months I’ve gotten closer with many of these kids than I did with some of my closest friends back home. Although I considered myself to be very independent before I came, and still do, I believe I’ve gotten incredibly comfortable with the uniquely intense social environment of my program. I’ll get back to my apartment after a long day of classes, and the first thing I do after setting my bag down is walk into our next-door apartment to relax with five or six dorm mates instead of resting on my own. I’ll always be thankful for the special living situation I had this year, with all of the comfort, daily excitement, and close friends it’s allowed me to gain. So, for anyone who is scared of transitioning from solo life to dorm life, I can confidently say diving straight into something as intense as this will certainly get you acclimated quickly.
I recently read an interesting article by Courtney Martin titled “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems,” and one of the main messages I was left with is that foreign problems often seem much simpler and more solvable than they really are. After spending over seven months in Israel I can confidently say this couldn’t be more true. Issues surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict, Jewish society, religious tensions, and much more that I wasn’t even aware of before arriving here have forced me into a personal crisis. I quickly realized after arriving, to my dismay, that the conflicts I came here to better understand would only become more confusing and distressing as time would go by and as I would have more personal close encounters with the people who are most affected.
Last Tuesday at seven in the morning I arrived at the Western Wall in Jerusalem with a group of friends from my program. I wasn’t there for a regular tourist visit, though, nor for anything particularly spiritual. Rather, I came in order to support my friends praying with the Women of the Wall, a multi-denominational organization that strives to achieve the right for women to pray freely at Judaism’s most sacred sight. As of now, women are not legally allowed to read from the Torah or wear prayer shawls at the Wall, and attempts to do so have been met with violence from both the police as well as the ultra-orthodox and orthodox communities. Throughout our two hours there myself and a few other men, who supported the cause by singing prayers from outside the women’s section and by being an extra barrier between the ultra-orthodox counter protestors and the women attempting to pray, were harassed, yelled at, pushed, spat on, and called traitors, and I can only imagine how much worse it was within the women’s section. Ultimately, the confrontation was incredibly disturbing but eye-opening. Having children as young as eight or nine screeching in our ears while religious men in their 70s or 80s cheered them on while calling us Nazis certainly allowed me to experience issues surrounding religious pluralism in an entirely new way.
Although I was infuriated by what I saw, I tried my best when reflecting on that day to understand what happened from different perspectives. Throughout this whole year one topic of interest that I’ve been exploring is moral subjectivity, so I’ve tried my best to not immediately reject different communities’ varying moral codes. With that in mind, I left with the impression that the fundamental moral principles under which the people yelling at us live simply don’t align with those of myself or most of the people I know in my more secular, liberal, and Western world. My worldview largely revolves around individuality and thus I place a lot of importance on civil rights, diversity, and fairness. I’m sure these counter protestors don’t hate the idea of fairness and individual rights, but it seemed to me like their moral foundations are based more in ideas of sanctity, authority, and loyalty. When one of my friends said something along the lines of, “just because we don’t agree on each other’s way of being religious it doesn’t mean we should fight to control each other,” a guard who was meant to protect us yelled at him that he was no Jew but a Nazi. Of course, I recognize that in the heat of a protest it’s hard to do anything other than yell at the other side, but still, how could I create effective dialogue with these people when we, to a large extent, speak from completely different moral planes?
Maybe it takes more than logic to convince one another. Maybe instead of throwing facts around, I’d need to tell stories and express the importance of different narratives. I’d need to successfully put across as a tangible, relatable thing the foundations of what I believe in, because if we don’t agree on those foundations then what difference does it make if my friend says she feels oppressed by the religious authority or if the ultra-orthodox claim the Torah says only men can wear tefillin.
During my gap year I have found many more new questions than answers and that’s certainly been frustrating at times. But when I signed up to come here, I believed I was ready to challenge myself and to question what I believe in. The frustration that I’ve felt throwing myself into situations like these at the Western Wall has been one of the most challenging parts of my year, but, at the same time, it’s been the most rewarding part as well.
Since I haven’t been the most diligent about writing my blogs, I thought reflecting on my mechinah’s middle of the year seminar, designed to reflect on individual and group growth, would be appropriate. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I didn’t quite need the time to ponder my own journey because I journal – literally dedicating 20ish minutes every night to reflecting – and because I’ve discovered I’m naturally a reflective person – sometimes to a level where I wish I could stop feeling all my emotions because it is exhausting. Instead, I mused on the group community we have created. We essentially live in a commune; everyone has shifts for cooking and cleaning and is part of a committee pertaining to a certain aspect of our experience (community service, learning, logistics, shabbat, and group.) My reality here is enormously different than my old reality of sitting through a whole day of school and extracurriculars and coming home to a clean house with dinner waiting on the table. Sometimes, I am lazy, and I don’t want to plan, cook, or clean – especially clean – anything. The sentiment of “somebody else will do it” occasionally, or perhaps more than occasionally, percolates through my brain. But then what if everyone has the same reaction? During one seminar session, we discussed our favorite quotes/themes from classes so far, and one quote really stuck with me: הפראייר האמיתי הוא הבן אדם שמפחד להיות פראייר“ ” meaning “the real freier (Hebrew slang term for a sucker/a chump/someone taken advantage of) is the person who is too scared to be a freier.” I understand this to mean that putting in more than you are likely to “get” is much more fulfilling than refusing to put in anything because giving part of yourself is part of the “getting.”
As a member of the group committee, my responsibility is to help plan our weekly שיחת קבוצה (group conversation). This forum is the food and water that enables the group to exist and grow. Our conversations consist of a 15 minute discussion on practical issues – often cleaning – and then we transition into some sort of activity or question that everyone participates in or answers. I’ve learned that group responsibility is not just a practical sentiment but also an emotional one; our group wouldn’t exist if not for communication, and I have improved tremendously on this front. I wouldn’t say I used to put up walls around myself but more that I never ventured out of my dotted line enclosed comfort zone. I wasn’t scared of opening up, I just always thought I could handle my own feelings, and I rarely spoke up if something was bothering me out of fear of being perceived as brash.
However, during our middle of the year seminar, many friends complimented me on how comfortable I was sharing my feelings during our many group-conversation-like sessions. And, during our “thinking time” sessions, I reflected on how beautiful it is that I have a group to which I can give so much of myself practically and emotionally.
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.
usalem, 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 o