The trip where everything went right…

This past weekend my friends, Ashley and Ariana, and I went to Rosh Hanikra and Acre in Northern Israel and had the best trip ever [yes, I do have friends. No, I am not exaggerating, this was the best trip ever]. I have never had a weekend or long trip ever go as seamlessly or smoothly as this one did, especially since the trip was planned only two days in advance, I packed in 10 minutes, and I have a history of falling into bodies of water- lakes, oceans, rivers- I do not discriminate.

At any rate, I woke up early after only 3 hours of sleep and rushed off to the bus. We arrived at Rosh Hanikra, famous for its caves, ahead of schedule and avoided the usual lines. This was definitely the prettiest part of Israel that I have seen yet. The ocean was a gorgeous blue and pale rocks really made for a beautiful coastline and the perfect atmosphere for starting our weekend. After a rocking photo shoot, we were ready to descend into the caves which had us all quite excited as Ariana and Ashley are cave enthusiasts and I am easily persuaded as to the value of tourist sites when traveling.

After finishing our tour and having some delicious pesto flat bread, we headed back to Acre where we would stay the night. This meant revisiting the famous hummus restaurant where our program took us the first week in Israel and eating way too much [worth it]. This restaurant is suppose to serve the best hummus in Acre and possibly all of Israel. While it is definitely the most delicious kind I have ever had, have caution, my friend, “the best hummus in all of Israel” is definitely a repeated statement all over the country. Perhaps we should take note of Buddy the elf and his unfortunate experience with the world’s best coffee.

This perfect day was followed up with a romantic date watching the sun go down over Acre and enjoying our freshly squeezed pomegranate juice [we sound healthy here, don’t be fooled]. We then completely ruined this little health kick by purchasing a pizza to take back to the hostel with us. Our night was finished up with greasy pizza stains and watching corny B movies from the States that somehow randomly always involved Jews in the plot. It was very random, but very interesting to see the selection of movies the station chose. Ben Stiller was an absolute favorite.

All in all it was a successful day with a lot of interesting encounters. For one, our taxi driver was a Druze man who rather pointedly asked Ashley what she thought of the conflict. This of course was awkward as 1.) we are all rather confused about what we think of the conflict and 2.) we don’t want to offend him and find our selves kicked out on the side of the road. Of course, Ashley gave a very diplomatic answer, but it was interesting to see how direct he was about his question. This is actually very common and people will ask you quite openly about your opinion on the Palestinian issue. I find it interesting that they are concerned at all with what American students think as I personally cannot even begin to imagine making any conclusions about the issue. It seems that between my sheltered life in the US and my lack of connection with the problem that I really have no place making any judgements. However, this does not excuse me from observing and learning as much as I can about this country and doing my best to understand and empathize with both sides.

The next day we got our moneys worth at the breakfast buffet, toured the citadel, bought overpriced pants at the Turkish market, chilled at the beach, and then I ripped said overpriced pants while climbing the wall at the harbor. All in all- one of the best trips I have been on in quite some time.

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When in Jerusalem….

Last weekend I had the amazing fortune to go with CIEE on a weekend trip to Jerusalem in which I had many delightful cultural (especially the culinary related ones) experiences. My morning began at 6:00 am on Friday as I woke up bright eyed and eager, well, more like I woke up and wanted to strangle the first person who spoke to me…but it was all worth it in the end. In Jerusalem, our director’s friend, J, took us on a slightly less than orthodox tour of the more modern sites in the city. First he took us to the most delicious breakfast buffet where I ate more than I want to even think about. Even cooler was the fact that we were in a quaint, literary cafe called Tmol Shilshom owned by a talented Israeli author. He even sat with us and read us one of his short stories about road rage and discussed Israeli literature. If you are ever in the area, this is a must visit:

After stuffing our faces, we went to go buy more food from the market place in order to prepare a shabbat dinner. Each group was assigned certain items to buy and then we were unleashed upon the world. I felt like we were in the Amazing Race and I think we would have won had my group not been distracted by our “modeling-with-fruit session”. Once we had all assembled with our goods at J’s apartment, we began to prepare a delicious meal of a chicken and a orange soup, salad with beets and eggplant, and a veggie stir fry with rice [there was also meat, but I did not pay attention to this]. After working hard on the meal, I personally snuck off for an afternoon snack and got to experience an interesting phenomenon. As I was purchasing baklava in the market, these orthodox Jews came walking by blowing a horn and yelling at stall vendors to close. J explained that they do this every Friday as it gets closer to 4 and the beginning of shabbat. This definitely would never have worked in the US, but no one seemed concerned even though all the racket had me convinced that Jerusalem was under attack!

When I got back, J divided us into groups and assigned us to home-stays with different friends of his. My friend Ashley and I were assigned to a lovely American jew, N, who lived in a almost bohemian style house with 5 other girls. They were incredibly welcoming and took us to their shabbat service where Ashley and I rocked the orthodox conservative style and hopelessly attempted to follow along with their prayers and chanting. It was a fascinating experience and I thought I would feel self-conscious, but everyone seemed perfectly accepting of our presence and some women even leaned over to try and guide as we clearly had no idea what we were doing. Then we all went back to J’s house where we ate the shabbat meal we had prepared earlier [delayed gratification with food is not my thing, but this time it was worth it]. They explained the different prayers and their meanings and showed us how to wash our hands before blessing and eating the challah bread. Everyone was extremely welcoming and the night went quickly as we ate delicious food and had great conversation.

The next day we toured the Israel museum and learned a lot about the history in the area. We got to see several exhibits designed to look just like synagogues in various countries and it was fascinating to see the architectural differences from Suriname to Germany to India. J then took us to a predominantly Arab neighborhood where his friend gave us a tour and tried to break down the political situation. Of course, with any conflict one must keep in mind that everyone has a bias in their story, but our tour guide gave one of the more fascinating accounts that I have heard since coming here. One impressive part was that despite his Muslim heritage, his daughter was Jewish and he thus he had connections to the other side. He even said that he completely understood the Jewish campaign for their own nation, however, he also showed us a darker side to the neighborhood where the intermingling of Arabs and Jews is not a positive relationship.

In this neighborhood in East Jerusalem , some of the more politically right Jews have begun to try and take houses away from Arab families. They do this with claims that they had ownership for the place and wait until the family leaves then try to occupy all or part of the house. Ownership in Israel can be a tricky thing as sometimes people own the house, but not the land and there can be great controversy over the matter. Therefore, clashes and protests happen here on a regular basis. As he was leading us through the neighborhood, I could see that members of our group became emotional as they were confronted directly with the conflict and they had to try and reconcile their own personal beliefs to this tour. We were put through the emotional grinder even further when a group of orthodox Jews tried to confront our group and the looks they shot at our Arab tour guide gave me a feeling for one second of what it is like to have people hate your existence. For one second, I felt I understood the fear and anger one must experience when confronted with such issues. This was only a small slice of life in the neighborhood, but it sent chills down all our backs. Afterwards, our group discussed what we had experienced and, although it was not the most rosy part of our trip, we all agreed that this was exactly why we had come to Israel.

I could not have been more fascinated by my tour of Jerusalem and am so grateful that we got to see such a different perspective. Usually people only go to see the holy and more touristy sites, but our director really worked hard to get us a more unique experience in the city and I feel that I came back understanding this complicated enigma that is Israel in a different way and perhaps feeling even more confused. To be sure, nothing is black and white here.

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My So-Called Life

Hey y’all! First of all, can I just say that if you are a Wofford student thinking about studying in Israel, do it!!!! This may be the best decision I have made in my entire life and I really hope to encourage others at Wofford to have such a great experience. I am already dreading the day I have to leave and am wondering how I will handle being able to read signs again and not having a bus driver try to kill me as I stumble to my seat in between his sharp breaks and turns.

I have also come to the conclusion that life is pretty much always a party here. On Wednesday, classes were cancelled for a 2 hour period as the university brought a DJ on campus and everyone partied. They even gave out free beer [which has been a reoccurring event]. A lot of the time, I find myself wondering if people even study at all or if they just party all the time? The other day we were sitting in our rooms when an announcement came over the speakers that are located in every apartment. Since it was in Hebrew, none of us could really follow it and we were about to run for the bomb shelters when they came on in English and told everyone to get up to the student bar for a ,you guessed it, party. Its great as they seem to strike a balance between getting everything done and having a good time. One Israeli commented that the life in Israel is uncertain due to the surrounding political tensions and so you must enjoy life as it comes to you. You can see the impact of this mentality in other aspects of Israeli life too…like the MANIAC drivers who will take on a bus if they feel the need. Its as if every day needs to be seized and that includes not wasting your time by driving a normal speed and not cutting people off. It is a very much a change from the style of life in South Carolina, but I am getting used to it quickly!

On the other side of things, I do have a lot of obligations here as well. I am taking Arabic [yes, I am crying into my book every night], Terrorism and Response, Arab Thought and Culture, and the Internship course. Arabic is proving rather difficult for me and it has me thinking I will be thankful to go back to America where they speak English. But its also pushing me as I have never had to read a different alphabet and the new experience is definitely changing the way I learn. Terrorism and Response is fascinating and sobering as well. The professor is also in the Israeli Defense Force and has spent most of his career working in counter-terrorism. Of course, this means his perspective on the matter is very clear cut and strong which bothers some of the students, but it also gives us great insight as he explains the nitty gritty of dealing with terrorism. So far we have covered a lot of the history and it is interesting how he ties in major events to the development of terrorism. For example, we learned about the impact of Nazi ideology on extreme Islamist movements and how closely they mirror Hitler’s examples. Its dark, but interesting material, to be sure.

For my internship, I am interning in the Department of International Relations for the Leo Baeck Education Center! The center subscribes to the progressive judaism side of things and works hard to help integrate people of different cultures into society and also to provide a high-quality education in the elementary, middle, and high schools. Outside of the education center, they have many other projects such their “Playing Cultures” which seeks to bring people of Jewish, Arab, and other backgrounds together through music. Other examples include the Arab-Jewish summer camps which helps expose the younger generations to each other and to breakdown the stereotypes and judgements these children have made about each other. They have a quote on the website which I think will give you a bit of perspective on what Leo Baeck wants to achieve. “On the one hand you can see the fear: they meet for the first time and some of them are really scared. Arab children, scared of Jews, Jewish children, scared of Arabs… in our small way we can change this.” (Noa Erlich, 2011 Summer Camp Coordinator)

It seems odd that they could live in the same country yet be afraid of one another, but that is a reality for many of the people here. At any rate, I really hope this internship will help me to better understand the different cultures of Israel and to expose myself to different aspects of the conflict here. This is definitely a positive side of Arab-Jewish relations and the center works hard to integrate people from all walks of life. These are only a few of the projects taken on by Leo Baeck and there are many more aspects such as their work with autism and empowering the Ethiopian Jewish community that I could talk about, but if you want to know more, check them out here.

All in all, I cannot think of a single complaint here. Everyday has something new and fascinating, whether it be a trip to the Golan Heights [pics to come] or simply hearing hearing a new a perspective and I am continuously growing through out my time here.

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Its about that time again!

Sooooooo, its been just under two weeks since I arrived in Haifa, Israel and I am pleased to inform you that I am still KICKING [although some of the food/H2O here may have tried to render that statement untrue…Indian food…tap water…never again]. Even better than being alive, I am settling in and really, really enjoying it here. I may have wanted to cry the first night as I got here and immediately realized all the REALLY IMPORTANT things I had forgotten and all the reasons that was a huge mistake, but I obviously made it through and am ready for this semester.

Since I haven’t been here too long, I think it is best to just tell you a few of my initial impressions about Israel.

#1. LORD have mercy if you are offended by people cutting you in line. As I stood in the security line for my plane to Tel Aviv, I was treated to an early taste of Israeli culture as 10 guys just swooped in front of me. The one guy even hopped back in forth between the two lines as he tried to decide which would be better for him and therefore cut me MULTIPLE times. It was actually pretty amusing, but a pattern that has continued to prove true through out the weeks. 🙂

#2. At least half the population carries guns everywhere. I mean everywhere. I am walking through my dorm and two students are pulling out their guns right in front of me! Israelis practically make it an accessory as they sling it over their back.

#3. Everyone is a model here. Even in their military uniforms they look like they should be on the runway.

#4. It is extremely easy to eat vegetarian here. The diet is great with hummus, falafel, and even vegan shwarma here. There is also a vegan apple pastry in the cafe on campus that I will have to check out some day as soon as get off my chai latte addiction [which is taking up most of my “food-on-campus] allowance.

#5. It is surprisingly easy to forget everything here. While in the US, I was acutely aware of all the disasters going on around Israel and all the possible dangers here. Of course, I was convinced this would be prevalent in the daily life, but, as I am here, I find myself forgetting that a civil war is raging in Syria just a few miles from here or that terrorist organizations are just a hop and a skip over the border. Thats not to say that people do not pay attention to the outside world- a grad student here said that most Israelis keep up to date on everything going on in the news-but for all those people who wished me good luck with apprehension or warned me of the dangers, Israel is nothing like you thought. They have created a life here in the middle of a tumultuous land. While it is not 100% safe [nothing really ever is], I feel better here than I would walking around Spartanburg, South Carolina or many other cities in the US. I feel as if many people have great misconceptions about Israel. I got comments such as “enjoy living in the third world” or “well, I hope a terrorist doesn’t blow you up” before arriving here. So much that I did not like to share the fact that I was headed to Israel. Unfortunately, the media and government throw out stereotypes of Israel which are not true and I encourage you to experience the reality sometime.

All in all I am adjusting well to the life here. There are many cultural differences and I probably fulfill the typical American tourist stereotype more times than I wish to admit, but I am slowly learning and growing.

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Frankfurt to Tel Aviv

It is exactly a week until my flight takes off from Frankfurt headed to Tel Aviv and I am currently surrounded by piles of clothes as I start to plan my theoretically practical yet fashionable wardrobe for my Israeli adventure! It would be lying to say that I am not nervous about this upcoming semester, but I can say that I am also feeling excited and confident. I admit I was starting to freak out just a tad in August when Obama and Putin were throwing their weight around over Syria and I confess that there was space in my suitcase reserved for a gas mask [No really, military brats come prepared]. However, everything seems to have settled down and the reality is starting to sink in for me.

In the spirit of being introspective and open, perhaps I should begin with introducing myself followed up by a few thoughts/expectations on studying abroad. I am a senior at Wofford College with a double major in German/Intercultural Studies and a Business minor sandwiched in there somewhere. I grew up in the military [so moving to new places is status quo] and my family currently lives in Germany where I spent the summer working as a waitress and volunteering/interning for the American Red Cross. I know some people find it weird that I have opted to study abroad for my senior year and sometimes I wish I stayed in South Carolina. Not being at Wofford means I am jealously stalking my friends as they post photos and feeling oddly nostalgic over those cinderblock walls, but I also realize this year is an unbelievable opportunity that will help me prepare for the rest of my life.

Being in Israel will prove a huge challenge as I have never travelled there, do not know anyone in the region, and have no idea what to really expect. Furthermore, I do not speak the language and I am envisioning nightmarish situations involving myself wandering around the city lost and unable to communicate with anyone. Despite all of my reservations, I chose Israel for many of these reasons. I wanted to find a place that was unique and that would force me to branch out of my comfort zone. I already studied abroad in Germany, but, let’s be honest, it wasn’t that much of a cultural stretch for me as I speak the language fairly well and have traveled there many, many times. This time around it will not be so easy. I am going to enroll in an Arabic course [over which I anticipate spending many hours crying into my text book] and will be taking 3 other courses at an international school which will surely prove very different from Wofford. However, I know at the end of this I will have gained so much. The people and experiences will change my outlook on the world by granting me a closer look at one of today’s most disputed regions and immersing me in a new culture. Who knows what I will choose to do with this new perspective, but I am confident that I will have the building blocks for one heck of a kick-butt, post-grad life!

Thanks for reading [or not reading] my first blog post! Even if you don’t want to wade through all of this text, check out these awesome photos from my summer in Europe!

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