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Experiencing the Israeli – Palestinian Conflict
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.
Structure, Flexibility, and Spontaneity
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.
Being Part of a Social Experiment
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.
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
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.