The Life of an Overseas Student

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Ask anyone and they will tell you, Israel is different. That, however, may be the understatement of the century. Whether it be the cab driver who screams at the afternoon traffic or the University Professor in the back seat of the same taxi also screaming at the traffic, it is safe to say that Israel is unlike anywhere I have ever been in the world. And yet, for the time being, I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

I came to Israel at a time when many said I shouldn’t. Dozens of Katyusha rockets were blanketing the Israeli North on a daily basis, leaving many in the Western world wondering when Tel Aviv would fall victim. I too sat watching the news for days on end, hoping hostilities would soon die down. They never did. I was left with a difficult decision: do I leave the safety of Montreal for an alleged war zone, or do I stay and wait for this opportunity of a lifetime to pass me by? I made the conscious (and cautious) decision to get on my British Airways flight on August 2nd bound for Tel Aviv. And as I look back now, it was the best decision of my life.

I, like many North American Jews, have had the opportunity to visit Israel on various organized trips, including Birthright and the March of the Living. And while these trips provide a fantastic first taste of the Holy Land, they make it near impossible to truly understand the complexity and dichotomy that is Israel and its natives. To understand Israel you must live here, at least for a brief time. Learning Hebrew in ulpan and in Jewish day school is essential. But unless you can speak "Israeli," you may as well be speaking formal Chinese. I want to know Israel. When I go back to campus and advocate for this tiny sand-caked country in the middle of nowhere, I want to know how it really works. More importantly, I want to know what exactly I am fighting for.

I am not backpacking around Israel (although that is something I plan on doing in the future). Instead, I am currently studying at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Being in Israel is exhilarating. Meeting Jews from all over the world in Israel is breathtaking. It is heartwarming knowing that Jews from Singapore, Brazil, Australia, and Spain call Israel their home, just as we do in North America. There is no need to break the ice before talking to fellow students. We are all Jews; what more could we have in common?

The University itself is situated on Mount Scopus, with the school overlooking both East and West Jerusalem. It almost makes you want to wake up and go to school in the morning...almost! You can’t help but smile watching a global representation of students stumbling to class in the morning (perhaps this should replace Hebrew as our global language!). Nevertheless, being in Israel is enough of a wake up call for us all. Being in Jerusalem is an added bonus.

The University provides many opportunities for students to see the country and try and gain that Israeli perspective. In just a few days I leave for a school-organized Shabbat in the Mitzpe Ramon Crater in the South. Advisors as well are constantly helping students find internships in and around Jerusalem. Fortunately, I have been able to find a student internship with the Jerusalem Post, one of Israel’s most prestigious daily newspapers. The experience gained from working there will surely prove invaluable knowledge and skill as I continue studying in Israel, as well as after my return to Canada.

The heads of Israelis all over the country are held high. But they know that a price has recently been paid. Although there is absolutely no sense of danger (come visit and you will see), pictures in newspapers of fallen soldiers and damaged homes in the North are the primary focus. Israel is sad. Jerusalem hurts and families weep for lost children. I myself cry for fallen Jewish boys and girls, because that’s all they are, just boys and girls. But I also shed tears for those non Jews who have taken it upon themselves to defend the blue and white flag with the Star of David emblazoned upon it. It is sad here and things have certainly been better. But things have also been much worse. At least now we have an army, a strong army. But the soldiers of Israel need to keep fighting. That includes Jews in the Diaspora who need to invest and defend Israel. Finally, come visit us in Israel. Tell the soldiers first hand "Thank you." It’s good for the soul.

I am not Israeli and there is a good chance I will never become one. But I hope that following this experience I will welcome Israelis into my home as kindly as I have been received into theirs. Granted at times the sentiment is low here in Israel. But restaurants still serve delicious Shwaarma on Ben Yehuda Street and clubs are packed with Israelis, blasting the latest techno beats from Europe. The malls are jammed and people are looking to rebuild what was lost. Life goes on in Israel because it has to. And I am happy to say that I am now a part of it. KADIMA (forward). As Israelis would say "they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!".

Lessons Learned From a Semester Overseas
By: Sean Bernstein

Why would anyone willingly travel to a war zone? That same question plagued me as I stepped off the plane at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport in early August 2006. And yet, I knew that one way or another my student exchange at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem would be the experience of a lifetime. Over the course of the semester, I became acclimated to Israeli culture, a variable global melting pot.

In order to describe what it means to be Israeli one would have to examine the individual histories of all its citizens, their birthplaces, and their languages of origin. Israel is a composite of global Jewry, creating a dynamic not found anywhere else in the world. But despite the country’s diversity, there exist certain truths which became evident to me during my 6 months abroad.

The first truth is that Israelis take care of their own in times of need. While the “screaming argument” is the national means of communication, Israelis put their differences aside. As Katyusha rockets blanketed the northern half of the country during the Second Lebanon War, over 1 million refugees were scattered about Israel from Tel Aviv southward. But what happened to those refugees? Israelis opened up their homes for over a month to their northern brethren giving them homes to sleep in and schools to learn in. It was more than a sense of camaraderie; it was family. Even Hebrew University accepted students from Haifa University to continue their studies in safety.
 The second truth learned is that while a Canadian passport is valid almost anywhere worldwide, it ranks second as compared to a Jewish passport. Meeting Jewish students from the far corners of the world (even dating a Jewish Spanish girl) was the most thrilling element of being away. Knowing that no matter where I go in the world I will have a place to stay, either with my friends or their families, is very comforting. A Jewish home is a welcoming home. So while my Canadian passport can take me anywhere, it cannot give me a bowl of bubbie’s chicken soup on Shabbat.

The final truth came to me as I was talking to a soldier on a bus on route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Assur L’fached (You are not allowed to be scared). Let’s face it; Israel has a strong military because it needs one. There are those who wish to do her and her children harm. But as I walked through the jam packed shopping malls, Vegas style nightclubs, and white sand beaches I realized that life goes on in Israel…no matter what. Israelis continue living their lives because they have to. That is the only way to function in the tough neighbourhood of the Middle East.
 It is difficult for an outsider looking in to see the multicoloured lens that is Israel. I encourage everyone to spend some time studying in the Holy Land, feel Israel’s diversity, and get a nice bowl of Bubbie’s chicken soup.        

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