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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.
Transforming Distant Issues Through Personal Encounters
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.
My Trip to the Gaza Border
As one of the most turbulent and dangerous areas in the world, the Gaza strip is certainly a place myself and most Jews have learned about, at least in the context of its relationship with Israel. Before writing more about my experience learning about the conflict between Israel and Gaza, though, I thought I’d give a brief summary of how today’s circumstances came to be.
During the War of 1948, in which Israel won its independence, thousands of Palestinian refugees fled the war and settled in the Gaza strip. The territory ended up under Egyptian rule and stayed that way until Israel took control after the 1967 Six Day War. Over time, a number of Israeli settlements were built within the Gaza strip, but growing violent opposition convinced Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that it was t
oo dangerous to continue the Israeli civilian presence within the territory. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, forcibly removing the Israeli residents from the settlements. After an election and military coup, Hamas, an extremist militant group, took control of the strip. Since then, constant rocket fire targeting Israeli civilians has led to several more violent confrontations between Gaza and Israel, leaving much of Gaza destroyed and in extreme poverty.
Until recently, my vision of the Gaza strip and its neighboring Israeli towns was largely abstract. Israelis have gotten so used to constant rocket fire from Gaza that it no longer seems unnatural, and because I had never actually met someone from Gaza, their reality to me felt like nothing more than a cautionary tale of what misunderstanding and unending conflict could do to a society. I felt almost numb to the fact that nearly 2 million civilians live in Gaza in some of the worst conditions on the planet and that the poverty and violence that exists there is so closely related to the reality I’ve been living for the past six months in Jerusalem.
This past weekend, my program took us on a tour of the towns neighboring the Gaza strip and introduced us to a number of people who’ve experienced the conflict on a more personal level. First we arrived in Sderot, a small city less than a mile from the border with Gaza. We heard from a woman who had lived near the border for over thirty years and also spent many years in Egypt, interacting with Arabs and learning about their struggles. After speaking about the need to work towards peace, she put us on the phone with a man named Ahmad who had spent his entire life in Gaza, unable to leave, and who spoke about the living conditions his community is faced with. As an academic who regularly interacts with Israelis and who’s attempting to lessen the tensions in the area, he is seen as a traitor to Hamas and has been arrested multiple times. Just being able to hear the voice of this man who many people see as an enemy simply because of the place where he involuntarily lives helped me see the urgency with which the conflict needs to be solved. After speaking to Ahmad, we took a tour of Israel’s defensive infrastructure with a Jewish man whose settlement was destroyed by Israel during disengagement. Throughout the tour, he didn’t hide his anger towards the attempted peace process and the Hamas terrorists who launch rockets into Israel every month. I was able to see inside Gaza through a telescope, and in one frame I could see farmers on the other side of the wall, with buildings with Hamas posters on one side of them and heaps of rubble on the other, and directly above the farmers high up in the sky was an Israeli balloon with surveillance cameras attached.
Apart from hearing about Gaza, we also visited a small kibbutz right on the border named Nahal Oz, and there we learned about the lives of the Israelis. Throughout our tour of the town, we saw tiny bomb shelters staggered around parks and sidewalks, and we learned about the PTSD almost all of the local children suffer from because of the frequent bomb sirens and the fear that at any moment their home could be hit.
After a two-hour bus ride, I returned to Jerusalem feeling incredibly privileged to have had the chance to visit this zone of conflict and to speak with people from all sides of the spectrum, and to have learned all that I did knowing I’m not in harm’s way. Spending this year in Israel has helped me make better sense of all that’s going on here, and it has pushed me to see the situation in Gaza as more tangible, as a conflict that today is impacting the lives of millions of innocent people, and as a conflict that is urgently personal and troubling.
Winter break in Tel Aviv
This year I got to spend my week-long winter break in my grandparents’ vacant apartment in Tel Aviv. With very few expectations and very many Corona-related restrictions, four friends and I arrived in the apartment on Thursday night, and after resetting our screwed-up sleep cycles we decided to make the most of our vacation and explore the city. We scootered from one side of the city to the other along the picturesque beach at sundown, saw our first Christmas tree of the year in Jaffa, joined our Tel Avivian friends from the program to explore the famous Rothschild Boulevard and Neve Tzedek artist neighborhood, and swam in the freezing Mediterranean Sea. With a little over two days left in our vacation, my friends were all packed up to return to Jerusalem, but I decided to stay behind for the rest of the break. My roommate exclaimed with a worried expression, “You’re going to be all alone for two days,” and I responded enthusiastically with a grin and excited eyes, “I’m going to be all alone for two days!”
These last few months in Jerusalem have been packed with so many memorable and fun experiences, but spending almost every hour of the day with friends who live with me got overwhelming at times. What I needed most of all during this short winter break was some quality time to myself. Although I wasn’t able to explore Tel Aviv fully during my two solo days because of the lockdown, I still had a bike and an apartment to myself. On the first night I watched just about every Disney Pixar Short ever made, ate lots of popcorn, and grilled a fish for the first time. The next day I went for a long bike ride (we’re allowed to leave a one-kilometer radius only for exercise) along the beach and through Hayarkon park (like the Central Park of Tel Aviv). Spending time alone, without so many distractions, gave me the clarity of mind I needed to fully appreciate all of the amazing things that have happened to me this year. Additionally, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more adult than those few days where I was living alone, making all my meals, and doing whatever I felt like doing with no one else to tell me otherwise.
The Silence of the Desert
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
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 I 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 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.
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.
Silver Linings in Jerusalem
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.
As my virtual high school experience came to a close in mid-May, I was preparing myself for what I thought would be the most uneventful summer of my life. Uncertainties regarding my gap year plans were all I had to think about as canceled travel plans and a lack of work opportunities left me increasingly discouraged.
Now, two-and-a-half months later, I’m sitting at my dinner table next to my new puppy, Mila, exhausted from my three-night stay on a boat in a sculpture garden in Maine, preparing to reflect on what turned out to be one of the most impactful summers I’ve ever experienced.
June began with a surprisingly fun drive-through graduation ceremony. Although I couldn’t say goodbye to my classmates, I did get to watch my teachers jump up and down in excitement as I passed by sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s car in my cap and gown.
In the start of July, after only a few days of planning, I drove with my family to Maine where we stayed for two weeks, enjoying each other’s company and eating daily lobster rolls. The night before I was supposed to return home, my older brother who took a gap year himself, convinced me to go on a Workaway experience
with him on a granite sculpture farm near Acadia National Park. I was reluctant to go because I needed time to prepare for a nine-month-long trip to Israel, but my brother convinced me that I’d regret not taking every opportunity offered to me during such an unconventional gap year. It ended up being the strangest three nights of the summer (as can be seen from this photo of my brother on the boat where we slept), but it also gave me a chance to explore Acadia and to bond closely with my brother before leaving home.
Before the official end of high school, the world began to turn upside down with the tragic death of George Floyd and the subsequent exposure of a systemically racist police system in the U.S. The civil unrest that has taken center stage in the U.S and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement gave me and my peers an opportunity to grow as individuals as we’ve worked to educate ourselves and others on the problems many Americans face as well as the need for urgent change in the criminal justice system. Throughout these past few surprisingly eventful and fun months of summer, I’ve made sure to put in perspective the challenges I faced and to never overlook the seriousness of the issues facing our world today. I started my gap year worrying that I wouldn’t get out of it what I hoped and feeling that I was bearing the brunt of all these new uncertainties. But now that I know how minute the obstacles I’ll face will be, as I move forward, I will remember to not set overly ambitious expectations for this coming year and to take in all that I can from anything and everything I may experience.