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This past week, Israel had two of its most important holidays: Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatzmaaut. Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, is a day full of sadness, stories, and broken hearts, as the entire country remembers its fallen soldiers who died to protect the country. Then, right when the sun sets on Wednesday evening, the entire country shifts in a flash to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s joyous Day of Independence. So how does an entire country transition so seemingly seamlessly from sadness to celebration? And why are these two contradictory holidays so close together?
Yom Hazikaron started with a trip to Jerusalem. Some of us on the program, including myself, left very early to spectate the bitter struggle between an organization called “Women of the Wall” and the religious men who pray at the Western Wall everyday. We watched as the members of the organization tried to bring in a Torah to pray with at the female section of the Western Wall, while religious men and women blocked their path. The whole situation was extremely messy, with both sides truly dedicated to their point of view. The Women of the Wall sincerely believe in the statement they are making for all Jewish women, illustrating their strong push for equal opportunity between men and women within the religion of Judaism. At the same time, the religious men and women believe that trying to change the time-honored customs of the ancient religion is foolish, and that God does not want these traditions changed. It was very interesting to be a bystander to this conflict, watching how both sides at the Wall thought the other was delusional.
Following the event at the Western Wall, we went to our old campus at Kiryat Moriah in Jerusalem (where we spent the first semester studying), to listen to speakers and watch films about Yom Hazikaron. To begin the day of remembrance, we stood in silence on the grass, waiting for the long wail of the siren. Throughout the whole of Israel, a siren flares up in remembrance for the fallen soldiers. All life stops, and every single Israeli stands for a minute or two, simply listening to the scream of the siren and honoring the day. Various Israelis came to the campus to speak about their lost siblings, children, friends, and fellow soldiers. I felt such a deep connection to the fallen soldiers, realizing that I have been living in a country that these brave troops died to preserve. My connection to the day was magnified, not only from living in Israel for the year, but also because of my age. If I was born in Israel, at eighteen years-old I would currently be in the Israeli army, enlisting along with all my friends. The story of one soldier, Benaya, was especially impactful. Benaya’s brother explained to us how Benaya served in a unit that discovered and cleared out the underground tunnels used by terrorists. After leaving a seemingly clear area, Benaya’s squad walked back to the rest of the unit. A terrorist, hidden beneath a secret entrance, popped out and fired round after round from a machine gun at the retreating soldiers. Miraculously, every single bullet struck Benaya and no one else, as the rest of the squadron quickly took out the terrorist. Benaya’s brother showed us a film of Benaya’s life. Clips were shown of Benaya as a kid, Benaya with his brothers, and most impactfully, Benaya returning home from duty one weekend to surprise his mother. I could easily picture my own family, and I could imagine the crippling, heartbreaking toll it would take on them. Later, a couple of my friends and I bused up North to Holon, where we ran a 5K along with hundreds of other Israelis in remembrance of Benaya. I witnessed each of his family members speak, viewing pain just as fresh as in the video we were shown earlier. Finally, at the end of the day, my friends and I made our way to the bridge overlooking the highway by our apartment. We waited there for the last siren, watching as speeding cars slowed down, pulled over, and stopped. Israelis got out of their cars, and we all stood together as one community.
While somber, I felt such a sense of communal support, knowing that throughout all of Israel, we were all hearing and thinking and remembering the same ideas.
Then, in a flash, Israel transformed. The sun went down, flags went up, music started blasting, and people began flooding the streets. Israel’s day of independence had arrived. I asked my Israeli friend where I should go Wednesday night in Tel Aviv to celebrate Independence Day. He replied: any street! We quickly mobilized, and went to one of the busiest streets in Tel Aviv.
Already, hundreds of people were dancing, laughing, singing, and spraying fake snow out of canisters for some strange reason. Large pick-up trucks pulled up, with giant speakers in the back. These “Nachman” (named after Rabbi Nachman, a venerated teacher of old) vehicles were driven by religious Jews, playing festive Israeli and Jewish songs. My friends and I danced all night with Israelis from all over, celebrating the holiday. The party continued throughout the whole next day, everyone full of joy for the existence of the Jewish state of Israel.
So how does a whole country shift moods in just a flash? How do we jump from a solemn day of remembrance to a joyous one of celebration? Perhaps the two days are not so different after all. The men and women that died serving Israel died with love and dedication for the country in their hearts. They sacrificed their lives to protect Israel, preserving its existence for now and for the future.
Yes, we can never forget the lives lost, never fully overcome the pain of the fallen young men and women, torn from their families and friends. However, we can celebrate what they died to protect and be grateful for the gift of protection and existence that they gave the people of Israel. In some ways, the days are one and the same. We would not have fallen soldiers if we did not receive independence, and no independence without soldiers risking their lives on the battlefield. Israel as a whole must be able to never forget the past and prices paid, but never stop being grateful for their sacrifice and hopeful for the future.
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.
Hebron—a city split between the Palestinians and Israelis, where the air is thick with animosity. While the Hebron Massacre fractured the city more than ninety years ago, the cracks still remain. The 1929 massacre occurred when Palestinian neighbors, infuriated by Israel seizing some of Jerusalem, invaded Israeli homes in Hebron and murdered Jews. While some Jews were hidden by their Palestinian neighbors, almost seventy were killed. Today, 80% of the city is owned by the Palestinians with more than 150,000 residents. Our group travels to the remaining 20%, where despite being owned by Israel, 700 Jews reside among 30,000 Palestinians. While Israelis can be from various religions, all the Israeli residents in Hebron are Jewish and observant.
Walking around, we see far more IDF (Israel Defense Soldiers) than Jews.
The few Jewish people that reside in the area are outnumbered by the security that they need, and we stop to chat with a few of the soldiers. One soldier, almost as young as myself, tells us about his service in Hebron. He speaks about constant conflict, palpable hostility, and short bursts of violence amid long, uneventful hours.
If I was born in Israel, it could easily be me in that uniform, serving in one of the most heated areas of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For some reason, I feel slightly ashamed. I stand across from the soldier, holding a water bottle and my airpods while he held seventy pounds of military equipment, risking his life for the Jewish Nation.
The difference in our two nations’ realities has never felt so glaringly obvious.
Next, we travel to the Cave of the Patriarchs, one of the most holy sites for Jews and Muslims as the founders of our religions (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah). While immensely sacred, the site also symbolizes another major point of the conflict. Initially, only a mosque was built above the caves, exclusive to the Muslims. However, in 1994, a mentally-ill Israeli
open-fired on a crowd of Muslims praying there, killing almost thirty. After this horrible act was condemned and denounced by Israel, the government thought the next safest step was to add a synagogue at the site. Now the area is divided in two, with the mosque and synagogue split on either side of the graves of our ancestors. Iron bars and glass windows as thick as the tension itself partition the two sides.
Before entering the Cave of the Patriarch’s, I observe the extensive security process, noting how long it takes for two boys to pass through.
I walk towards the entrance with the group, but our guide, Josh, takes a surprising turn towards one of the shops near the entrance of the site. Josh brings out his friend Mohammed, a Palestinian resident in this Israeli-owned territory, to share his unique perspective. While light-hearted and personable, Mohammed speaks of a difficult life, under constant suspicion by Israeli soldiers in the area. I notice an unhealthy cycle, where frequent attacks increase the constant need for suspicion, in turn prompting more attacks.
He continues telling his story, and then answers questions from our group of Americans and Israelis. When asked why he does not simply apply for Israeli citizenship, he tells us of his pride to be a Palestinian, explaining how applying for an Israeli citizenship would feel like betraying his people. He continued speaking, telling us about stories of interrogation, his perspective on the conflict, and disapproval of the actions of Hamas, a terrorist group in Gaza.
While I disagreed with him on topics such as the need for a Jewish nation and how to properly carry out a two-state solution, I wondered again what I would be like if I grew up as a Palestinian in H2 (the Jewish area of Hebron). Under constant conflict with the Jewish settlers and tension with the police, I could have adopted similar views to Mohammed.
As we finished the conversation, I walked away feeling conflicted. On one
hand, hearing Mohammed’s unique perspective was extremely interesting, and it was wonderful to have a logical and respectful discussion. On the other hand, after comparing the opinions and upbringing of the Israeli students in our group to Mohammed, I felt that the conflict was too deeply rooted in both sides’ culture and history to ever be truly solved. However, while these opposing narratives may always exist, sharing perspectives will only aid in finding a solution.
Following our talk, we finally made our way into the Cave of Patriarchs. I walked through the synagogue, perhaps treading in the very footsteps of Abraham Aveinu himself. I peered through the bars into the tombs of each ancestor.
Since the synagogue was built above the caves, I realized the tombs were only symbolic. If this was indeed the burial location mentioned in the Torah, then our ancestors would be below in the caves. We walked down towards the caves only to be met by giant iron doors with countless locks. Here, Josh (our tour guide) explains the intriguing and infuriating story of why no one can enter the sacred caves. I would highly recommend finding the entire story online, but to summarize…
The Muslims believed that the caves should be banned, some not wanting to disturb the ancestors, and some believing that traversing into the burial site would release a demon. Though the Jews, still yearning to enter the caves, returned to Hebron, they were not allowed in. In 1968, the Jews snuck into the caves and began excavating, finding bones, artifacts, and other pieces of evidence that the patriarchs were buried there. After the excavation, the Jews left for the night, planning to return with better equipment. However, Muslims found dusty footprints the next day, sparking widespread riots and outrage, forcing Israel to permanently shut down the caves.
Listening to the story, I am astounded that the sacred caves before me are unexplored, possibly full of glaring evidence that can prove numerous historical events. I cannot believe that we have not fully excavated the area, dying to know the secrets that lay below.
While I have learned about the conflict in various cities, Hebron proves the most striking and informative. I feel more worldly, and my perspectives have expanded significantly, all from witnessing divergent lifestyles and contrasting views amid a splintered, holy city.
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.
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.
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.