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The month of November 2021 has been one of the quickest of my life. Now that I’m finally in a routine here, I was able to visit two new cities: Lisbon and London. Each was a unique experience, so I wrote a journal entry after each trip to remember the details. (more…)
My second month abroad was even more meaningful than my first. Not only did I learn more about Israel and Judaism in the classroom, but I also continued to explore the Old City by foot. In my first blog, I wrote about seeing the Dome of the Rock (or Temple Mount) from afar. Recently, I also had the opportunity to explore it up close during the one hour of the day that my program was permitted.
I spent the last week of November in Poland. It was cold and gray, and the towns we visited were bleak. However, I enjoyed the food, which helped make up for the fact that it was my first Thanksgiving away from my family. I missed all of the traditional foods we eat each year, especially my grandma’s pecan pie. I also missed watching football with my dad and brother.
In Poland, I visited many of the concentration camps from the Holocaust, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka. I also saw the Warsaw Ghetto.
Although I had previously studied and knew the historical significance of these sites, I was overwhelmed when I saw them in person. The population per square kilometer in Manhattan is almost 28,000. In the Warsaw Ghetto where Jews were forced to live, there were 125,000 Jews per square kilometer. They comprised nearly 30% of Warsaw’s population but occupied only 2.4% of its area.
Leaving Poland, I was consumed by one thought: how truly lucky and privileged I am to be alive and to have been born in the United States.
During the last few days in Poland, I learned about the Omicron variant to Covid. I also learned that if we didn’t make it back to Israel by midnight on November 28 we would be required to quarantine for three more days. Having already quarantined for a full week in September, I was really hopeful that my plane would be on time. As luck would have it, our wheels touched down 126 minutes after the deadline so we were immediately tested and hurried to our quarantine locations. I am looking forward to my final month in Jerusalem once quarantine ends.
You would think that plunging directly into my hometown of almost nineteen years would yield routine results—invariable observations I would be wont to have. Yet, cradled between familiar mountains and blanketed by the same dusty borderland sky, my everyday community sprung opportunities ready to impart me with new knowledge. As my gap year commenced, my newfound role as an intern for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center delivered a transformative culture shock a few short miles away from the border along which I had been raised.
Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center (“Las Americas,” for short), prides itself on its unique hub of community volunteers, interns, paralegals, and attorneys, all working to provide relief and pro bono legal aid to migrants from across the globe. Interning for the Detained Team at Las Americas, I assumed differing roles to contribute, however slightly or laboriously, to the mission of the organization, from ordering files to interviewing detainees about their often-harrowing cases for asylum.
Even just a few months into my work, I witnessed significant diversity and similarities across cases. Clients shared insight into the heart-wrenching realities of their home countries: some fled incarceration under an unjust government, unmitigated destitution, religious persecution, or as victims caught in the crossfire of corrupt systems and violent groups. Some immediately acquiesced to substandard conditions and discrimination at detention centers in the hopes of prompt release, while others petitioned officials for basic respect. Some arrived already suffering physical and/or mental trauma, escaping brutality and degradation to the most primitive conditions imaginable. At times my stomach would churn upon hearing the clients’ ages, some even younger than me.
Across backgrounds, every client bore ideals valued by the US to this same country that attempted to turn them away. While some advocated for their freedoms and inalienable rights, others promoted love, faith, assiduity, forgiveness, and courtesy, even when aware of how the US misconstrued them as wrongdoers or criminals.
However, all of the clients—regardless of language barriers, cultural differences, or brevity—spoke with the same humble dignity and respect, their tone fatigued, but never defeated. Engaging in such poignant conversations with clients resulted in constant emotional growth, as I strived to empathize with the detainees and offer the solace lacking in the immigration system. Despite the complexity of such an unforgiving system, the people I spoke with maintained hope, braving every undeserved difficulty to seek a better life.
Often before ending their interviews with a blessing for the workers at Las Americas, the clients I spoke with disclosed pieces of wisdom I carry with me:
- “Venimos a sembrar semilla Buena a este país” (We have come to plant a virtuous seed in this country)
- “Love recognizes no religion or color”
- “En ninguna carcel, ni de oro, alguien se va a sentir bien” (In no prison, not even one of gold, will someone feel good)
- “La vida es bonita, nadamás es saberla vivir. Por uno no viene para molestar” (Life is beautiful, if only you know how to live it. That is why one does not come to this country just to be a bother.)
As I prepare to spend Christmas with my family knowing the clients I spoke with may not obtain the same opportunity, I think of the lessons working at Las Americas has instilled in me thus far, remembering to hold steadfast to faith and hope and look forward, but also sideways to our fellow neighbors. I now move forward with the intent of treating everyone benevolently and finding ways to alter the immigration system for the better, seeking the noble work hidden within the niches of my community.
In the past few weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s important to do what you want to do when you want to do it.
In the weeks prior, I was overwhelmed with work and the tasks before me that I lost track of living and treasuring each day given to me. During the busy times of developing a mobile application, starting an English project for the Japanese community, and interning, getting through the day had become my end goal, and before I knew it, there were only three months left in my gap year.
Of course, three months is still a lot of time, and I am just as excited to start my time at Duke, as I am living in Japan on this gap year, but part of me started to fear the what-ifs. What if I feel like I didn’t do enough on my gap year? What if end up not being able to do something I could’ve done? What if I reflect on my gap year and think, I should’ve done this, I should’ve done that instead of feeling satisfied with my year?
Rather than thinking about the what-ifs now, I decided to prioritize taking time to do the things I want to do now: the things I can’t do in the United States and without the time I currently have. One of those things was traveling. With the added hurdle of COVID-19, it was difficult to take extended trips to remote areas, but with the number of cases having gone down significantly in Japan after the New Year, I took my mask and backpack and headed off.
I first started by taking a brief trip back to the United States. This trip was mostly to conduct trials of the mobile application I had been developing in Japan, but it was nice to be home and spend time with my family for the first time in 6 months. After enjoying many home-cooked meals, time with my dog, and feeling refreshed for the second half of my year, I headed back to Japan.
In retrospect, this short trip back to the US was important in resetting the new “normal” that had become living in Japan. I was able to appreciate spending time here more and found many things I wanted to do before the year was over.
My first trip in Japan was two days in Osaka on the West side of Japan. I decided to go on this trip about three days before I went, as I found tickets for The National High School Baseball Championship. The National High School Baseball Championship is held twice a year in the spring and summer, and it is one of the most-watched sports events in Japan. I was very excited to get an opportunity to attend, as it was my first time going to the spring tournament, and the tournament last summer was canceled due to COVID-19. Watching the players chasing their dreams under the hot sun and brisk wind, was a fresh reminder of myself just a few months ago. Revitalized and motivated, I returned to Tokyo.
My next trip was to the bottom part of Japan, where I visited Hiroshima, Oita, and Fukuoka prefectures. A friend and I took a plane down and only used trains to travel between the prefectures. Although we were still in Japan, life seemed much slower there, especially in Oita. Trains only came once an hour (they typically come once every few minutes in Tokyo), and the climate was slightly milder, making it a nice escape from the hustle of everyday life. Walking along farmland and homes in remote areas of Japan, seeing and experiencing things I had never done before but knew I’d likely never do again, I felt happy and refreshed.
Looking back on the past month, I feel that it has been one of the most enjoyable of my gap year so far. Being able to take a trip across the country whenever you “feel like it” and experience things unbelievably different from your everyday life is a benefit of the gap year I never want to give away. I have a few more trips planned for next month, so I am looking forward to wherever those trips take me next.
The past few weeks have been full of excitement at my house, as I am making my final preparations before heading off to New Hampshire for the next few months. I leave for Marlborough in less than two weeks now, and I am so excited to finally arrive! In case you haven’t seen my previous posts, which you should definitely check out, by the way, I’m heading north for a program called Gap at Glen Brook, a place-based gap year program that focuses on personal growth through a variety of experiences, including engagement with nature, building practical skills, and more.
Since October, I’ve been preparing myself in a lot of ways for this experience, which will be like nothing I’ve done before. I’ve never been away from home for so long before, never seen more than an inch of snow before, and certainly never canoed to another state before. That being said, I knew what I had signed up for when I decided to attend Glen Brook, and these “never-befores” are, at least for now, more exciting than nerve-wracking for me. In order to prepare to the best of my ability, I’ve had to do a great deal of learning about surviving New England winters, including everything from base layers to fleece hats to sleeping bags rated to 15°F.
There are also, of course, a lot of covid related procedures to follow in the lead up to arrival, and yesterday was the start of my two-week quarantine. Every day, I record my temperature, symptoms, and notes for the day to be turned in upon arrival, and I am limiting outside excursions to only the essential. I will also be getting another covid test next week, as will the other participants. Once we all arrive at Glen Brook, we will continue to social distance and wear masks for two weeks, and if no symptoms are shown, we will then transition into a domestic unit.
My next post will be written from New Hampshire, and I can’t wait to share more about the experience. Also, if you are curious about the program, check out their website: https://www.gapatglenbrook.org/.
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.
I was always the kid who would stay up all night before any kind of trip. Whether a field trip with my school or a family vacation, the idea of going somewhere has always excited me. This time around, it’s more than one night of excitement. Considering what the world and my life have looked like since March, I can’t begin to express how much I look forward to stepping on a plane in 7 short days.
In exactly a week, I will be making my way—mask and negative COVID test in hand—to spend two months exploring Hawaii, Oregon, and California. I will be camping the whole time, living with 12 others from around the country. We will be spending two weeks in quarantine on a macadamia nut farm before exploring the Big Island, getting a scuba diving certification, hiking, surfing, volunteering, and more. Then we will make our way to Oregon where we will visit national parks, take a Wilderness First Responder course, and work with many different organizations as we make our way down the coast before ending in Los Angeles.
While the itinerary makes the trip enticing, the part I am most excited about is that I will be doing it all with a completely new group of peers. It’s been hard saying goodbye to my friends from high school and watching them as they head off to college and meet new people, so I’m looking forward to doing the same. At the same time, this is also the part I am most nervous about. Going into this not knowing anybody feels like a bit of a leap of faith, though I have no doubt it will pay off.
While I spend this last week at home balancing the conflicting emotions and the struggle of packing my tent, sleeping bag, snorkel, and everything else into one duffel bag (the picture shows a fraction of what will need to fit), I still feel those same night-before-trip-jitters. I can’t wait to embark on this journey and am really grateful to have the opportunity to do so!