Embark on an exciting journey into Israel, the homeland of the Jewish People and my home for the next year! I will be adding my new observations and perspective of student life at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, Israel. Enjoy the ride!

Monday, August 29, 2005

Arrival in Beer Sheva

We arrived in Beer Sheva yesterday morning. However, when we loaded the bus, we were informed that there had just been a terrorist attack at the Central Bus station here. This put quite a damper on the experience, although I reacted better than I thought I would. Life goes on in Israel, and the news and people worldwide seem to forget that. I was more angry than scared that someone would viciously try to take more Israeli lives after Israel has gone through so much. What a cowardly way to make a point! I feel more strongly than I am writing right now, but the point is that life does go on. We drove past the bombing about 7 hours after it occurred, and it looked like nothing happened. People were still waiting in line for the bus. Buses were carrying their full capacity. Life continues despite these gutless terrorists. How dare them.
Beyond that, we arrived at the absorbtion center where I will be living for the next 3 months. I am living with 5 other girls in an apartment meant for new immigrants coming to Israel. We have no oven, no microwave, and as our madrich Feivel says, we are living the "real thing." I finally unpacked all my clothes and made my very very hard bed, and I am beginning to feel at home. I am living with Jesse from the UK, and she and I clicked right away! We have a great time singing show tunes and making sick jokes to each other. I know it is going to be a great situation for the duration.
A little bit about Beer Sheva. Beer Sheva is the fourth largest country in Israel, housing about 200,000 people. It is the largest city in the desert, and was named after the wells in the Torah, specifically the 7th well. This is my first night venturing out in the city, but so far it looks like it will be fun. There is a university here, but the students are on break until after the Holidays.
Today we did are first part of community service. We planned a sort of impromptu carnival for the kids in the absorbtion center where we are living. We ended up having about 50 or so come from all age ranges, and it was a lot of fun! Communication was difficult since they come from all different countries, mostly India, France, Russian, and countries in South America. We have the opportunity to volunteer time within the center working with the kids, so I might try to do something like that weekly.
That is Israel in a nutshell thus far. I have already had my eyes opened in ways I never imagined, and I am excited to see what other things I will discover this year.
One more note... I met a settler just now who left Kfar Darom in Gaza last week. He is staying at this hotel in Beer Sheva and then being moved to Ashkelon for a while until they can start rebuilding their lives in the desert. He was just asking to use the computer to check his email. Amazing.

My First Week in Israel!

Wow. I have way too much to say. I have been here officially a week, and have done so much already. I'll try to update you as best I can, but it is impossible to include everything that I have done. We left on a plane from JFK at 2:40AM. In total, there are 63 Otzmanikim from all over the US, Canada, and one from the UK on this program. Everybody I have met here is fabulous, and have all come for the right reasons. I am still taking my time getting to know everyone, but I have made strong connections with some of the girls and we have had a blast together thus far!
We started our week in Jerusalem, staying at the Rabin Youth Hostel in Givat Ram, which is just outside of the City. We basically did not leave the hostel for two days as we were updated with information on the history of Israel, disengagement, security, Ethiopian Jews, the differences between Americans and Israelis, and other topics that I am sure I am forgetting. We only ventured out to the town on our second day and went to Ben Yehuda to a bar and then to a hookah bar. Hookah is flavored tobacco for those of you unfamiliar with it. We went down to the Negev to a Bedouin tent and then arose at 5 AM (and I didn't even complain) to go on a hike called Nahal dov. This was the first experience I had actually hiking and making a connection to the desert. The temperature was not as hot as I would have expected, but was not cool like California by any means. We went to the Dead Sea after that and I actually floated for the first time there! The next day, we arose again at 5AM for another hike, this one called Nahal Tamar, and then headed back to Jerusalem for Shabbat. A word about the desert... It is actually more beautiful than I had imagined. We stopped at one point during our first hike and talked about how Abraham passed through the desert on his journeys. This was the place where he spoke with God many times, and when one sits quietly for a while, one can start to imagine why. The peacefulness and spiritual energy that flows from the desert is amazing. For Shabbat, we had a festive meal with our Otzmanikim at the hostel, and then were on our own for Shabbat morning. I went with a couple girls to a shul that I had heard much about from my old boss at work. The shul is progressive Orthodox called Shira Hadasha, and I was blown away when I walked in the door. There were as many women as men, some wearing talitot and kipot. The separation, or mechiza, was a sheer white curtain that was pulled back for certain parts of the service. A woman was leading davening for the entire congregation, and women lead the Torah service and read from the Torah. The Torah was passed on both sides of the mechiza for people to kiss it as it went by. The music was like nothing I had ever heard, and the melodies and harmonies were uplifting and enchanting. I was spiritually uplifted in a way I hadn't been for a while.
We concluded Shabbat with Havdalah and then made our way to the Kotel in the Old City. Strangely enough, I felt like I needed to see the Kotel (Western Wall) to actually believe I was in Israel. I felt differently than I had ever felt before this time when I came. There were people praying, as they usually do, and a woman sobbing as she stood next to me. I was wondering what she was crying about. Had she just left her home from Gaza? Did she just lose a son or daughter in the army? I was suddenly aware of all the cries this Wall must have heard throughout the years, and I was overwhelmed. I realized too that for the first time I will be able to visit the Wall frequently if I wish, not just once and then leave like I had been accustomed to in the past.
After my spiritual experience, I headed out to a club in Jerusalem to meet up with the guards from our trips to the desert, and danced the night away. Jerusalem was amazing.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

All Ready to Go!

It is late, so this will be a short one! After days of stress, I am finally all packed and ready for the year... I am sure I packed too many unnecessary things, but I decided to blame my sex. If I were a guy, I think packing would have been much easier! Anyway, finally the anticipation comes to fruition! I will be in Israel in about two days, or so. I suppose that tomorrow I will just end up sleeping the entire plane ride, because I can barely keep my eyes open as it is... Just to clue you in, tomorrow my plane takes off from Long Beach at 8:50AM and arrives at JFK in New York at 4:55PM (East Coast time). From there, I will head to the El Al terminal where I will meet up with my fellow Otzmaniks. We all will meet and have an orientation at the airport at 8PM, and then our plane takes off to Tel Aviv at 2:40AM! The flight to Israel takes between 10 and 11 hours, so I will be arriving in Israel during the evening. I just hope I get to a bed where I can sleep! Okay, I am going to go to bed now. I love all of you and thank you for being such a support to me through this!

Friday, August 19, 2005

Why Israel? Why Otzma? Why Now?

The past couple of weeks, I feel like I have been asked the same questions over and over again. I thought I would just talk a little (or a lot) about why what I will be doing over the next year is so important.
I was born an American Jew in the year 1982. This means several things. First, I never experienced the same kind of anti-Semitism that my grandparents or mother did growing up. Being born two-generations beyond the Holocaust supposedly meant that the world had "woken up" and that anti-Semitism would no longer be a problem I would have to face. The Jews had suffered the worst atrocity possible, and the world would not forget that. I would say for the most part, that is how I felt growing up as an American Jew. I never hid the fact that I was a Jew, even though I was the only Jew in my school until middle school. It was a challenge catching up on homework that I missed yearly for the High Holidays, but other than that I felt my childhood was an easy, positive experience for me. The fact that I was born in 1982 also means that I have never lived in a world without the State of Israel. I think many Jews, as I did, take that for granted. We have no idea what the consequences would be if we did not have a State to turn to in our time of need, should it ever arise. We have no idea the fight that took place to establish Israel, nor did we ever experience first-hand the wars that this young country has been through in its nascent existence.
However, in college, I faced a different form of anti-semitism. I watched as professors and administration supported anti-Israel speeches, classes, lectures, and organized groups on campus condemning my country for whatever was on their agenda for that day. I didn't have the knowledge or the tools to start arguing back, or fight what needed to be fought, so I became an observer. I just reacted emotionally at these talks, and became more interested in finding out more. I was not as passionate then as I am now.
AIPAC became a driving force in my quest for knowledge and understanding of Israel. I was exposed to news stories where I read first-hand, every single day, the anti-Israel bias that appears sometimes very subtlely in many newspaper articles. I read about the divestments of churches from Israel because they don't believe Israel has a right to defend herself however she deems necessary. I read about our detractors, of whom are many, and began to understand how truly outnumbered we as Jews are in this world. I feel like I have only scratched the surface of what actually is out there, but I can say that this exposure caused me to wake up. Unfortunately, I am not as optimistic as I once was about the future of Jews anywhere in the world. Actually, I need to revise that. I don't feel confident about the future of Jews in anywhere, except Israel. Israel is there for Jews everywhere in the world. Currently, Israel is bringing in Jews who have been persecuted all over Ethiopia and giving them a safe place to live and prosper. The same goes for the Soviet Jews. Israel exists so we have a place to go and live in peace and prosperity.
This brings me to why I am going for at least a year. I am lucky that I have passion streaming through my veins about Israel. I am unlike the majority of Jews, I am sorry to say. However, it is one thing to articulate how passionate I am, but another to actually act on it. I am spending next year in Israel because of my Zionistic ideals. I want to make a tangible difference in the lives of Israelis, and hopefully help better the country by doing so. I don't want to be a person that has never acted on her passion or ideals, and I need to be a part of Israel's history. I hope that in some way, when I have children, I can say to them that I helped build a school, or built up a community, in Israel and that we are lucky that Israel exists for us. I don't want to just talk the talk, I want to walk the walk and be an example to those around me.
Through Otzma, I will be able to learn about the country and participate in community service projects that will put me in touch with Israelis and Israeli culture. I feel fortunate to have found a program such as this, and will fully utilize all it has to offer me while I am there.
Finally, I am going now because the time in my life is right. I also know how incredibly important it is for me to be in Israel now. I have spend all week watching the settlers disengage from Gaza, and how steadfast the soldiers have been while carrying out this terribly painful process. I am proud of my country. I feel like we have handled this awful situation as best as possible, and can now begin the healing process. I hope that somehow, and I honestly have no idea how, I can be a source of comfort to these people. I feel deep down within me that I need to be there in Israel's time of need, and feel fortunate to have the opportunity to go.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Goodbye LA

I still am surprised at how well I handled this week. This week I had my last day at AIPAC, my Otzma Send-Off, and moved out of my condo. I also said "L'hit" to many of my close friends and roommates that have certainly shaped my year.
I'll start with leaving AIPAC... This week started differently than most; we had our staff retreat. For me, this time ended up turning into many different opportunities to express my feelings about AIPAC as an organization and my co-workers as my friends. I truly have learned so much from this job, more than I could have ever imagined when I accepted it last August. For my co-workers and myself, the work we do is not only a job but a calling. I don't think I have the ability yet to grasp how unique and inspiring this work environment is. My co-workers were an extended family, to whom I literally opened up my heart, and was able to learn incredible amounts of information on the Middle East and life. In my intimate relationships with my two bosses, I was able to be kicked in the butt when I needed to be and felt like I was better because of it. At this point, I can't quantify how much I will miss my co-workers and the environment and passion we shared, but I am grateful to each and everyone of them for this year.
My Otzma Send-Off was on Thursday. The four fellows from LA (Michelle, Brent, Larry, and me) all joined with staff and lay leaders from the LA Jewish Federation. Elliot Brandt, my former boss at AIPAC and Otzma alumi, also attended. Each of the Federation staff spoke, to educate us on the opportunities and services that the Federation provides. The most interesting speaker was in charge of the LA/Tel-Aviv partnership. For those of you that I haven't told yet, I will be spending the second track of my time in Israel in the city of Tel-Aviv. Initially, I was ecstatic about this because of the weather in winter there. Tel-Aviv was the only place I was warm when I visited Israel in December 2003, so I am so happy that I will not freeze in other parts of the country!! However, the weather is only the tip of the iceberg. There are social action projects already set up in the city that I will hopefully be able to participate in like Cafe Europa. Cafe Europa is a project that essentially brings together Holocaust survivors living in Tel-Aviv for dancing and socializing. There is another educational project set up for underpriveleged kids whose parents have to work. The project sets up after school tutoring and programs to keep them off the streets. As I was listening to these programs being described, I could not help but become incredibly excited and anxious to start this important work!
And finally, I left my apartment in LA. This was a gradual process, over a couple days, but all of my things were out by Friday. I always find it strange the last time I walk out of a place where I have experienced so much. Leaving represents a concrete point that I can reference as a moment of change. Leaving AIPAC was another one of those signals to me that I am moving on to the next stage in my life. My roommates Kristen and Meredith and I went to eat lunch at Il Fornaio in Beverly Hiils before we said good bye and went our separate ways. I will certainly miss them, but I have a hard time believing that I will never see them again. In fact, that is how I feel about leaving my job at AIPAC and LA. I think it is only a matter of time that I will be back in some capacity, and perhaps that is why I am okay with it all.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

2 Weeks To Go...

I had a fabulous weekend. My roommates and I finally had a party at our condo to celebrate the end of our lease on Friday night, and I went to Santa Barbara on Saturday night for Fiesta. Our party was fun, although expensive for us! We decided to have the theme "I'm a big kid now," which basically meant you had to dress up like what you wanted to be when you were a kid. Ironically, I dressed up like a Salsa dancer, or Mexican senorita, neither of which I have ever aspired to be. Anyway, my friend (and fellow Otzmanik) walked into the party with a Homer Simpson mask that covered his head completely. I was a little freaked out until I realized who it was, and then I thought his costume kicked ass! Shana (my co-worker and great friend) dressed up like an archaeologist, and brought this cute little bucket filled with dinosaurs and dots candy. We had an ice luge, and a keg, and everyone ended up hanging out on the roof chatting and drinking. Good times, and a great way to end our lease!
Saturday in Santa Barbara was amazing! I tend to forget just how beautiful the mountains and the beach in Santa Barbara are, and am reminded every time I venture back to visit. This particular time I went to celebrate Fiesta, where the whole downtown is covered with drunk party-goers smashing eggs filled with confetti over each other's heads. Who was I to not partake in this tradition? I met all my college buddies and we did what we do best: drink! We ate, drank, and danced the night away all while smashing eggs and reminiscing about our times together in SB. I really had a hard time saying good bye to all of them, even though I only see them every so often. I stayed with my girlfriend Galeet, who I haven't seen enough since she returned from Israel, and we ate "orgasm bread" after we got back from downtown. So good. I miss SB terribly, but I know I can always go back.
I leave officially two weeks from today. I am starting to get a bit nostalgic. I work three days this week, and I am moving out of my apartment on Thursday. I am not freaking out the same way I did when I left Santa Barbara, but the move still feels bittersweet. This was a great year for growth, and I know I am only going on to grow more in the next year, but I am still sad to leave.