In the Land of Milk and Honey

My experiences studying abroad in Israel

Bye, For Now

Well… the time has come for me to leave Tel Aviv. It’s hard to describe how exactly I feel about leaving, because I’m feeling everything. I’m sad to leave, excited to share stories, eager to see friends from home, nervous to re-enter life in the US, scared about falafel-withdrawal, and that’s not even the half of it. However, in the midst of all of these feelings, I would definitely say that this was a successful semester. I came in with an open mind and minimal expectations, and am leaving with valuable experiences, amazing stories and life lessons that have made these past five months unforgettable. As hard as it is for me to leave now (trust me, tears have been SHED), I can’t help but feel grateful that this has all happened.

Study abroad happened!

When I came back from Birthright in January, a friend continuously joked with me after I said I “was back in the states but left my heart in Israel.” I’ll admit that I gave her good ammo; what I said sounded pretty cliche, like a hallmark card. It’s a bit surreal to me, comparing my two Israel experiences. I came back to Israel for the semester because I wanted something more. Maybe it wasn’t my heart that I left here, but there was definitely something left unresolved from the 10-day trip I took in January. While I’ve been exposed to so much more during my five months here, and while I feel like I’ve gained so much more clarity about my relationship to Judaism and Israel, I simultaneously feel stuck with the same feeling I had in January. Maybe I just need to explore my Jewish identity more in the United States, but I have a feeling that this “goodbye to Israel” is only temporary. I’ll be back sometime, for some amount of time, whenever that will be.

So, Israel, bye for now. To everyone I met, encountered, laughed with, argued with, cried over: thank you for making me feel something. And Baruch HaShem for Skype! Stay in touch and don’t be a stranger.

Until then…

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I’m Dreaming of a White Shabbos

I decided to spend my last Israel Shabbat in Jerusalem, and it was definitely a Shabbat to remember. The weather report predicted a stormy weekend, so I decided to leave Tel Aviv on Thursday morning to avoid the worst of it. By the time I arrived at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, at 10 AM, snow was already falling like I’ve never seen before. Cars and trains were stuck on the roads, busses were cancelled, everyone was confused, panicked, scrambling to get out of the storm and into warmth. My friend had warned me that it might be difficult to get around Jerusalem, so I called him and told him I’d make it over whenever I figured out a plan. My plan? Get there without getting sick. Being from LA and snow-stupid, it only took me one step outdoors before I face planted in the snow. I proceeded to walk down the street for a bit, searching for cabs, even attempted hitchhiking (sorry mom), but eventually found my way back to the Central Bus Station. I bought some coffee, snagged a power outlet, and kept my ears open for news about the situation. As I sat and processed some of what I saw outside, I envisioned a scene from some apocalyptic feature-film; the snow was an alien invading Jerusalem and somewhere, Tom Cruise was plotting a way to save the city (loosely based off War of the Worlds). Jerusalem is definitely not built for such harsh weather conditions, and I doubt anyone expected a snowstorm of such severity to ever hit. The “snow plows” used were most likely tractors from Kibbutzim, and many people were seen “shoveling” snow with squeegees – talk about preparedness! Eventually, I overheard some girl say that the roads were opening and that cabs and trains were running again, so I bundled back up and headed outside, where the snow had died down a little bit. Luckily I found a cab willing to take me as far as I needed – I was so relieved to arrive at my friend’s apartment 15 minutes later.

Once indoors, the snow actually started looking pretty nice. I left only once on Thursday to go to the grocery store; most of the weekend was spent inside, dressed in numerous layers and blankets, trying to stay warm and dry. There were always at least four people on the pull-out couch to keep body heat in. My friend Ben ended up baking a cake and making some peanut butter cookies, which brought a little extra heat into the apartment and made delicious treats. It snowed all through Thursday and didn’t let up much (if at all) on Friday. The power went out *(in)conveniently* a few hours before Shabbat, while we were preparing food. With no power and still heavy snow fall, going to shul for Shabbat was out of the picture, so we all gathered and did Kabalat Shabbat together in one apartment. There was something still very special about it – we were all bundled up in winter clothes, with no lights or electricity, freezing cold, and yet the spirit and warmth of Shabbat was still there. We ate Shabbat dinner by candlelight (we joked it was like the restaurants where you’re in pitch blackness and can’t see what you’re eating), and then had our own little singalong to pass the time until more people from other dinners showed up later that night.

[To emphasize just how cold it was, here’s how much clothing I was wearing all weekend: 3 pairs of socks, long johns, two pairs of pants, a shirt, two sweatshirts, a fleece jacket, a hat, a scarf and gloves. Maybe it’s just the Southern California in me, but it was pretty darn cold!]

On Saturday, the snow was still piling up. We decided against shul (though probably very few were actually open) and I spent most of the day reading. The power had come back on, and fortunately the heating plate was plugged in before Shabbat, so we had warm food for lunch! Instead of sitting at the dining room table, we all decided to grab food individually, and then we pushed the couches together and sat around the coffee table with our blankets. As cold as it was, both outside and in the apartment, I couldn’t help but enjoy the fact that I was in Jerusalem for Shabbat, surrounded by snow and great company. I ended up finishing the book I started that day, and as soon as we did havdalah, everyone scrambled to take warm showers and turn on heaters, and then we reconvened for a movie.

Sunday morning came and I packed up my things in the morning, called for a cab and said goodbye to my friends in Jerusalem. This was the start of what I anticipate will be a very emotional goodbye process over the next week, though I did manage to hold back most of my tears while leaving. I’m very lucky and appreciative to have met so many great people during the time I’ve spent in Jerusalem over the past few months, and I’m hopeful that we’ll cross paths and stay in touch in the near future. It was very important to me to have one last weekend in Jerusalem before I left – I’ve felt a deeper connection to Judaism through being there and have learned a great deal from the people I’ve surrounded myself with. It may not have been a weekend spent in shul davening, but it was still filled with spirituality, personal reflection and quality conversation. What more could you really ask for on Shabbat?

While there were many articles written throughout the weekend about the weather, I got a good laugh from this one.  We got what we asked for and then some!

A Happy Hanukkah Indeed

My parents came to Israel for a week to visit! They arrived just in time for the first night of Hanukkah and got to light candles in three different cities, with plenty of sufganiyot and fun memories in between.  Here are some pictures from their visit:

Feeling Jewish Again

I had a very Jewish childhood. For the first ten years of my life, I attended Jewish day school, Jewish sleep away camp, weekly Shabbat services at a conservative temple and participated in youth group events. Pretty much all of my friends were Jewish, simply because my whole world was Jewish. When I learned how to read and write in English, I simultaneously learned to do the same in Hebrew. Every year I’d learn more and more about Jewish holidays (I can clearly recall watching “The Prince of Egypt” during many Passovers) and I still remember the words and melodies to Jewish songs and prayers. One of my favorite childhood memories is sitting in temple on Yom Kippur, when the congregation doubled in size, and hearing everyone’s voices blend together into one massive, powerful wall of sound. I’ll also never forget taking a Torah trope class with my mom when I was 9, and how awesome I felt the first time I read from the Torah at a young age, or learning how to bench at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California, and all of the funny jokes and hand gestures that accompanied the birkat hamazon. I had a very Jewish childhood, and I loved everything about it.

After 2nd grade, I switched from one Jewish day school to another, where I had a very different experience: I went from having friends and a loving community to being bullied and alienated. T’filah became less about the prayers for me and more about being in a room of people who picked on me for being unlike them. The trauma of being bullied became deeply associated with my Jewish identity, and sadly I felt like I needed to get out of it all to start fresh. Luckily things got better, I switched schools after sixth grade to a secular (and extremely progressive) middle school. I took this new beginning as a chance to broaden my identity and explore new sides of myself. I found great comfort in the performing arts (I even traded out summers at Camp Ramah for a performing arts camp in upstate New York) and was in a place where being different was cool, so it was a very satisfying change. It was here that I learned that the majority of the world is not Jewish, and that there’s a difference between Christianity and Catholicism. I had a Bar Mitzvah in 7th grade, because I still belonged to a temple and it was the thing to do. I took the chance to further express my musicality by duetting with my cantor during some of the prayers, which made the process fun, but I mostly saw that day as my last religious obligation in Judaism. I wasn’t in Hebrew school, was now “a man” and could make my own decisions as far as my practice of Judaism, and so that was pretty much it for me.

As I got older and more mature, I noticed that most of my friends at this new school connected to Judaism in one way or another, which made me feel more comfortable acknowledging that I was part of the club. My involvement in Judaism through high school remained predominantly secular – I’d attend high holiday services at temple but would volunteer in the daycare program to shy away from the actual prayers. This apathy towards spiritualism in Judaism stuck with me as I left for college. College in general has been very freeing for me – I’ve gained much more self-confidence and have been able to find a better balance in what makes up my identity. During my freshman year, I found out about this free trip to Israel for Jews (Birthright) and when many of my good friends signed up to go sophomore year, I decided to sign up as well. What happened during those ten days was very interesting, and also very unexpected: Birthright gave me a space away from everything at home to put my Jewish identity at the forefront and reflect on what that meant to me. It was there I discovered that buried deep down, I really missed my Jewish identity, the feeling of belonging that I got from being in temple and the voice I felt that I had through t’filah. It was as if something sparked inside of me, something important, but I had no time to really let it sink in and affect me – it was only ten days after all, and I was already so busy riding camels and climbing Masada with my friends.

Luckily I made the decision to come back. I already had plans to study abroad for the fall semester of my junior year, and I recognized that I need more time to experience Israel and investigate my Jewish identity. I chose to attend Tel Aviv University because the classes sounded interesting and engaging and I didn’t spend any time in the city while on Birthright (also what’s better than a relaxing semester near the beach?). Once I got here, I discovered a program called Voyage to Medicine, which allows undergraduate pre-med students to take classes, do research, see surgeries and shadow doctors at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center, as well as volunteer on Magen David Adom ambulances, and I managed to switch into it. I’ve been in Israel now for four months and can truly say that I’ve found a new place to call home. When I walk through Tel Aviv, I know my way around the streets, where the tastiest food is, how to take public transportation, it’s like I’ve been here for years. I’ve learned so much about the people, and the puzzling combination of the calm/relaxed/”sebaba” mentality and being rushed/urgent/without patience. I’ve embraced the harsh weather conditions of 70-and-sunny in November and have noticed the stark contrast between the high-tech developed buildings across the street from the poor, struggling neighborhoods. I’ve connected to Israel and it’s complexities and have therefore felt more strongly connected to my Jewish identity.

This past week, I attended the General Assembly for Jewish Federations of North America held in Jerusalem. When the counselor from the administrative office at Tel Aviv University first asked me to go as a MASA representative, I had no idea what she was asking me to go to. I just figured that whatever it was, it’d be a fun, free six days in Jerusalem. I agreed to go with no expectations or prior knowledge of anything and had so many questions that I was almost embarrassed to ask: What’s MASA? What’s a Federation? What goes on at the GA? Is it just a giant room filled with Jews schmoozing? I showed up at the Jerusalem Gold Hotel on Thursday and soon discovered that I was the only person not just from my program, but from my university. I quickly learned the basics about Federations, how they traditionally have supported Jewish groups and organizations mostly just by funding them, and how their goal moving forward is to engage more young North American Jews in Jewish life. I found out that the GA is not just a place for Jews to mingle with old friends, but to engage in discussions about Jewish life, both in the Diaspora and Israel, and the issues we all face. I now know that MASA doesn’t just write checks, but is an umbrella organization with over 200 programs that is sending over 11,000 people to Israel this year alone.

I was one of 50 “Masanikim” in the MASA delegation at the GA. Everyone in the delegation came from very different programs, and in the few days before the GA that we met, it became clear how diverse this group really was. We all came from a variety of states (and countries), Jewish backgrounds, religious beliefs and priorities, and had different expectations and visions for the future of Judaism. Everyone had such poignant things to say, adding depth and dimension to every discussion and Q&A we had. I was so proud to see that this was the group of young Jews representing our generation’s voice at the GA.

I learned a great deal from the panels and talks I attended. I was riled up and motivated by learning how Israel is the only democracy that imposes marriage restriction laws on its citizens, and what impact that has on not just Israeli Jews but on the majority of Jews of the Diaspora. I was inspired by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks to ask the question “why” more, and by a panel of speakers on the integration Jews and Palestinians in schools who made it seem like coexistence and peace is possible. But it really was my peers from the MASA delegation that impacted me the most and gave me the most to think about. I don’t think I can find enough words to describe how greatly this group inspired me. Hearing everyone speak and offer such honest, personal perspectives made me look at myself and my own Jewish identity and wonder “what am I doing here?” In whatever little free time I had, I dug into my own Jewish journey, uncovered some hidden feelings and was able to fall back in love with being Jewish. I’m grateful for the experiences I had at the General Assembly with my MASA peers; if they are the voices of our generation, then I am very hopeful for the future of the Jewish people.

I’M ALIVE, I SWEAR!

To anybody who actually follows (or followed, it’s been a while…) my study abroad blog: I’m sorry. If you are anything like my mother (or are my mother, hi mom), I’m sure you were worried sick about me when you didn’t hear from me for two whole months.  Last you saw, in September, I was packing for Europe, and if you aren’t my friend on Facebook or don’t follow me on Instagram (which raises the question, why aren’t you following me on Instagram?), there is no way for certain of you knowing that I even MADE it to Europe.  So, in an effort to catch you up, here’s a (not-so) short list of things that I have done in the past few months.  My apologies for not elaborating much on any one thing; I just need to get this all out there and then get back into a normal flow of blogging.

    • I went to Europe!! Yes, I did successfully finish packing, and went on an amazing 18 day trip.

    • I saw friends from Hopkins in Prague, where I discovered that good public transportation exists and that beer can cost less than water.  I ate delicious traditional Czech food (fried cheese, where have you been all of my life?) and also some of the best Mexican food in all of Europe.
    • I fulfilled my lifelong dream of visiting Italy.  I started in Venice, where I got lost – in the best of ways – in the canals and museums and bought a cool new bowtie.  I then went to Florence, where I ate the best pizza and gelato I have ever had, saw breathtaking views of the city, had a home cooked Italian meal, and finally saw the Ponte Vecchio, which I did a project on in 6th grade.  I ended my Italian journey in Rome, where I walked over 10km a day exploring the city, reunited with friends, and experienced the glory of being a Jew at the Vatican (#jewsatthevatican, trending soon on Instagram).
    • I siesta-d in Seville, took a day trip to a beach in Portugal (and got stuck on that beach because of high tide), ate an insane amount of tapas, and saw the beautiful Plaza de España.
    • I managed to visit the 3 largest cathedrals in the world, and heard people speaking Hebrew at all of them.
Shalom from the Vatican!

Shalom from the Vatican!

    • I learned how to make pasta, or rather how to cover a pot of pasta in a thick layer of cheese and pesto.
There's pasta underneath all of the cheese, I swear!

There’s pasta underneath all of the cheese, I swear!

    • I successfully completed a first aid training course with Magen David Adom, where I learned CPR, how to put on a head bandage, and that giving someone oxygen pretty much solves all issues (well.. most).
"Whoever saved one life has saved an ENTIER world"

“Whoever saved one life has saved an ENTIER world”

    • I started my semester program at Assaf Harofeh, where I’ve been taking some great classes from insanely intelligent doctors.
    • I started volunteering on ambulances with MDA, where I’ve helped everyone from a 91 year old man to a year-and-a-half old baby.
Who you gonna call? MDA

Who you gonna call? MDA

    • I met a doctor in infectious disease and started doing research with him – I’ve been working on analyzing data from his study and will have my name on a publication for the first time if this research gets published!
    • My friend (and roommate for the spring) Asia visited me from Switzerland for four days, and I had the most fun time showing her around my new home. We shopped at Shuk Hapishpishim in Yafo, ate delicious falafel, went out in Tel Aviv, and had a lovely Shabbos walk on the beach (yes, it’s still beach weather here).
    • I watched as Shuk HaCarmel flooded and then dried up, all in 10 minutes.
    • I saw a surgery for the first time and almost fainted.
    • I expanded my database of delicious Tel Aviv cafés and restaurants (which deserves it’s own blog post).
    • I went to Tel Aviv’s Fashion Night Out, where I met and shook hands with some of Israeli’s biggest celebrities without knowing who they were.
    • I ran in the Tel Aviv Nike Night Run, and finished my first 10k ever in under 53 minutes! I also realized my goal of running a half marathon before I graduate college (and then hopefully a marathon before I die or injure my knees).
Finished the race with a smile on my face!

Finished the race with a smile on my face!

    • I went on a Jeff Seidel Shabbaton, where I rode ATVs, saw a giant crater in Mitzpe Ramon, made new friends, and experienced Jeff Seidel.
    • I finished all 10 seasons of Friends and then cried.
    • I began reaching out and making some Israeli friends, and now truly feel like I have close connections with the people here.

So there you have it. 2 months in a nutshell. It’s frightening how fast the time is passing by, though I’ve been making sure to take everything in and fully live in each moment. I’m currently in Jerusalem for the General Assembly as part of the MASA delegation, where I’ve gotten to meet a brilliant and diverse group of young driven Jews. I’ll be sure to share more about this week soon, and not two months from now.

It’s 3 AM, But…

I still have to pack for Europe!  Talk about leaving things for last minute…!  But while I’m up, and doing everything but packing, and while it’s still a reasonable hour in America, I figured I’d blog about my scattered state of mind. The good news is that I think I have most things packed already.  The bad news is that every time I look at my suitcase, and then through my room, I keep finding things that I forgot to pack.  And I don’t mean things I want to pack, things I need.  Like an umbrella, because it rains in Prague.  Like a toothbrush, because basic hygiene is kinda important.  Like allergy meds, because my sinuses hate me.  Like a long sleeve button down shirt, because I will find a synagogue in Venice for Yom Kippur.  Like my passport, because it’s my passport.  Hopefully this sick game will end soon!  It hasn’t even hit me yet that I’m going on this trip tomorrow, like trips usually don’t hit me until the plane lands there, but I bet it’ll shape up to be pretty darn awesome once it starts.

How packing makes me feel

How packing makes me feel

Even with everything going on in my wonderful abroad life, I’ve been thinking about Hopkins a lot this past weekend, which was a cappella auditions weekend.  I’ve been in touch a little bit with people from my group, Octopodes, about auditions and callbacks and whatnot, and it’s been so strange thinking about new Podes that I won’t get to meet until January.  For now I’m just some guy studying abroad, so mysterious… Anyway, literally like 5 minutes ago I found out that the group decided on its new members!  Even though I have no clue who they are, I’m sure they’re awesome people with awesome voices and I hope they have the wildest time in Octopodes.  Baby Podes, if you for any reason are reading this: Congrats and welcome! I love you already!

I found this video on Youtube: it’s of Octopodes alumni singing a song for the new members.  Getting a little nostalgic, don’t mind me!

Ok back to packing.

The End of an Ulpan and the Beginning of a New Year

I can’t believe it’s been 6 weeks since I arrived in Israel!  Today I took my final Hebrew exam, marking the end of my Ulpan class.  On the first day of class, I remember feeling completely lost.  The teacher spoke so fast and with such a wide vocabulary that I nearly moved down to a lower level.  However, I stuck with it, and after not failing the first exam, I decided to stay.  6 weeks later, I feel like I made the right decision – being a little further behind everyone at the beginning pushed me to pay closer attention and catch up, and now I feel much more confident in my abilities to read, write and speak Hebrew.  I can’t say that I’ll miss having weekly tests, but I will miss just about everything else, from the laughing and singing to the under-the-table-snapchats and the many different characters that our class consisted of.

!להתראות, אולפן

So what’s next for me?  Well, I have a three-week long break from now until the beginning of the fall semester, during which I will be traveling through Europe!  All of my flights are booked, and I will be trekking from Tel Aviv → Prague → Venice → Rome → Seville → back to Rome → back to Tel Aviv.  Some details are set already, but most are not, like the week between Venice and Rome where I’ll be traveling down Italy (I have always wanted to go to Italy!).  I have several Hopkins friends studying abroad in some of these cities and others, and hopefully I’ll get to see them while I’m there.  It definitely feels strange starting my vacation on the first day back to school at Hopkins, and seeing posts on Facebook about it have made me miss being in Baltimore a little bit.  But these past 6 weeks and this upcoming Eurotrip are opportunities that, before coming here, I could only dream of, so no amount of fomo (this is what kids are saying these days: it means “fear of missing out”) is going to stop me from having the time of my life!

This week is also Rosh Hashanah, which I will be celebrating in Tel Aviv before flying to Europe.  Apparently, Rosh Hashana is not just a High Holiday here, but also a time for big parties (it is New Year’s, after all).  So here’s to starting the New Year off on a good foot with a clean slate.  !שנה טובה