It has been two weeks since I left what was in all sense of the word, my home, and returned to my somewhat mundane existence in the “hinterlands” of Upstate, NY. Israel. While in Israel, I found myself able to satisfy a very human desire of mine: understanding my individual sense of place. In a time of my life when the idea of home should be confusing and fluid to me because of how dynamic early adulthood is, Israel helped me answer a sort of philosophical question of what it means to have a home and a sense of place within your community. While in Israel I learned through observations. I saw the coexistence of unique cultural identities and national unity. I saw Haredim share streets with nouveau hipsters and came to value my Jewish identity as it is. I now have a greater appreciation for the idiom “home is where the heart is” and recognize too that home is where our memories live, and is something that transcends the physical. Although I am uncertain as to where I would like to be in twenty years, through my formative experiences and adventures in Israel, I am certain that a piece of my heart lies there. The bonds of friendship that I forged with my fellow year coursers will remain strong because we discovered our comfortable sense of place together. Now to describe my year…
The month of September was all about acclimation. Our group of participants lived in Bat Yam (a large suburb of Tel Aviv), and were given an unprecedented amount of freedom to discover new things. I entered Israel with minimal understanding of Hebrew (beyond the ability to read and write). Although I knew other participants on my section, I didn’t really know how to live on my own (as in how to properly shop for food, cook, take care of myself, and live with a group of others), and I felt an atmosphere of uncertainty as to what the future would bring in Israel because of the recent cease-fire that ended the summer’s conflict. Looking back at the first couple of weeks is quite amusing. I think that I can speak for most of us in saying that we were like fish out of water. Occasionally we felt lazy and did not want to go to an activity. Lucky for us we had the convenient excuse that we had gotten lost on the bus on the way there (although this wasn’t always an excuse… the buses were quite confusing in the beginning)! Observing the 20+ American teenagers trying to navigate through the local grocery store, attempting to remember the Hebrew words for the various types of produce and figure out how to properly shop for themselves must have been very comical for the locals. Walking through the pouring rain carrying loads of grocery bags while simultaneously braving the flooded streets of Bat Yam was one such memorable experience of mine shopping for one of my first times. I could only describe our arrival in Bat Yam as a sort of “American Invasion” of sorts. Like the Brits of the 60s and 70s, we brought loud and new music to the neighborhood (at all times of the day/night), made the local kids go crazy (although not always in a good way), toured around boisterously on buses (we always made sure the nahag had his work cut out for him), generously supported the local liquor shops, and eventually strutted down the streets with an air of confidence.
When all of the glitz and glam of our first taste of freedom faded away, we adjusted. Intensive Ulpan (Hebrew study) began, and our teachers started to illuminate the political and social climate of Israel to us. Israel became more familiar, as we explored its restaurants, nightlife, nature, and other cultural attractions.
After the first month, everyone, including myself, felt much more self assured that we could, in fact, survive in the wild, wild Middle East. We were able to negotiate the Tel-Aviv bus system with ease, learned which nights it was better to go to Valium vs. Morphium, discovered the arepas guys in shuk HaCarmel, and more. Finally, it was time for us to start the main attraction of the first semester: volunteer work. Participants had the option to volunteer locally at a school for special needs/at risk kids, at an agricultural school, at a soup kitchen, at a marine school, or at the Save a Child’s Heart Hospital. Others trained for and volunteered with Magen David Adom (the Israeli ambulance service) at different stations near Tel Aviv, or participated in the Israeli Defense Force two-month Marva training program at a base right next to Ben Gurion’s grave (Sde Boker). I chose to make the trek up north, right in the heart of the Carmel Mountains for my volunteer work at the Yemin Orde Youth Village. The Village is a boarding school for youth with troubled pasts. Many come from abusive, unstable, and impoverished families and have been exposed to sexual and drug abuse. For some who are orphans, Yemin Orde is the only place they can call home. For all, Yemin Orde remains a home for them throughout their life. Yemin Orde works to build up the confidence of these students and show them that they have a purpose in the world. Yemin Orde communicates to the students that their past should not dictate their future.
Kids from all over the world are included in this community. I was immersed in French and Ethiopian culture, became friends with students from Crimea to Kazakhstan, and met the most amazing guy the same age as us Year Coursers who escaped from death and tragedy (he was from an area of Darfur effected by the genocide) to better himself in Israel so that he can help others like him. I was initially attracted to the French students because I am fairly fluent in the French language after studying it for 7 years, and I gradually became more aware of the hardships that French Jews endure every day in an increasingly anti-Semitic France. Unlike most of the other immigrants, the French came to Yemin Orde and Israel because of the feeling of danger in France, and not because of economic or familial instability.
Soon I was assigned an English teacher to work with in the school. The majority of her students were Russian 9th and 10th graders, who were taught mostly in Russian (because they were mainly new immigrants with weak Hebrew skills), as well as some Ethiopian, Israeli, and French students. At first the students were intimidated by me. They had no idea why a “rich American” would want to come to their school and help them out. Every time I told them I was from New York, they would envision the New York City skyline and a penthouse like apartment, not understanding the fact that living in “New York” didn’t necessarily mean living in NYC. Over time, they began to open up a bit more to me, and felt comfortable enough to accept my assistance with English one on one. They used to look down and away from me when we passed while walking around the school, but eventually I began to be greeted with friendly “как- Дела” (kak dela), “comment ça va”, and “מה שלומך” (ma shlomech). As the students became more comfortable with me, so too did I, with the whole Yemin Orde environment. One of the things that intrigued me the most about Yemin Orde was the way in which classes were taught. Students who do not want to learn in a traditional class setting have multiple opportunities to explore their strengths through other modes of learning. For example, if a student is feeling overwhelmed during a class, they can leave the class freely as long as they go to the library, farm, black smith, or wood shop. This supports students who are struggling academically as they are already often discouraged by their circumstances. My experience with school in the U.S. was one of much more strictness, and to be frank, I was quite surprised to see students getting up and leaving during the middle of class. Working with pupils within a system of such freedom was challenging at times because they didn’t always feel obligated to devote all of their attention to the task at hand, but by the end of Yemin Orde, I understood the necessity of freedom in the learning environment. Every Tuesday (which unfortunately was the day when they served hamburgers and fries for lunch at Yemin Orde… the best lunch of the week), we had the opportunity to explore the North of Israel. We went on splendid hikes, visited various historically significant places such as the Atlit detainee camp ,went to Rosh Hanikra, toured the artist village right next to Yemin Orde (En Hod), participated in an art workshop, partook in a coexistence seminar, went wine tasting and more. Yemin Orde was an influential experience. I was introduced to a different philosophy of teaching and an environment of multiculturalism like I’d never seen before. My volunteering ended right before the winter break. At the beginning of January the transition into the more academically characterized part of year course began. I moved to Jerusalem to the beautiful neighborhood of Baka, which is where the headquarters and campus of the program is located. Although my roommates and I were decidedly upset with our new, somewhat (very) small apartment off campus (shout out to Tsiporah) at first, and were uncertain what our moderate isolation from the rest of the Year Coursers who lived in the apartments on Beit Ar-el would be like, living in Tsiporah and Baka in general was a blessing. Baka completely contrasted with Bat Yam in terms of its modernity and its cultural feel. While Bat Yam reminded of me the former Soviet Union, with its bland and indistinguishable apartment buildings (and also because the majority of the residents were elderly Russians), Baka seems to have so much more life to it (despite the fact that Bat Yam was literally right next to Tel Aviv).
As a Jew, I religiously/spiritually felt much more connected to Jerusalem than any other place in Israel. It seems that anywhere I stepped was a place significant to history, a place of conflict and death. When I gazed around me, however, at the modern and glorious city of Jerusalem, I saw the presence of democracy, innovation, and progress. It felt even more natural for me to be Jewish in Jerusalem than anywhere else in Israel, which might seem odd, but something special pervaded the atmosphere of the city. While in Jerusalem, we had the fortunate opportunity (twice a week) to explore Jerusalem and many of its historic places, hike through the beautiful Judaean Desert, walk the streets of Hebron, and witness what it is like to pass through a security check point. Our classes were engaging and made me question my previous conceptions of religion and the political climate in Israel. Once the week was over we had ample opportunities to connect with aspects of Judaism not directly in our lives when visiting religious host families for Shabbos dinner. Although the religiosity of Jerusalem was sometimes inconvenient (ie. everything was closed on Shabbat/holidays, taxis were more expensive on Shabbat, you risked being stranded in Tel Aviv for the weekend if you didn’t catch a bus back to Jerusalem in time), some of my favorite memories involve celebrating the holidays/festivals (religious and secular) in Israel (I also have a newfound, definitively favorite holiday- Purim). It was during these times when the sense of community and oneness amongst all Jews was most profoundly felt, and this was a very special feeling for me.
Of course our lives in Jerusalem were also characterized by the winter cold, which forced my roommates and me to stay inside a lot and watch hours of Justice League and other childhood-era shows, going to the usual bars by Crack Square late at night, hanging in the frat house hookah room, and really solidifying our friendships with one and other by becoming pretty much a united section.
Towards the end of March I along with YCers from both section 1 and 2 had the opportunity to participate on the Kuma trip to Poland. Before embarking on the journey to Poland, my vivid expectation were mostly characterized by my understanding of the bleakness of life in Poland during the holocaust- the black and white. Kuma, however, totally changed my perspective on Poland. The programming of Kuma centered mostly around the idea that we should not only remember those who perished in the Holocaust by what the Nazis did to them or even try to understand the alien world mostly devoid of morality that was Europe during WWI; we should also celebrate their lives and all of the beauty that was Polish and European Jewry for the hundreds of years before the Holocaust. We visited the graves of influential religious and secular thinkers, toured what previously had been vibrant Jewish centers and villages, and visited the harrowing sites of the Holocaust. By the end of the trip, both section 1 and 2 participants grew significantly closer with each other, and our journey was completed fittingly at the Kotel.
Although we really had to come to terms with the fact that Year Course was ending with beginning of spring break in April, the last two months of Year Course were some of the most memorable. On April 1st, my roommate and I flew to Prague where we began our EuroTrip, and were joined a few days later by our other roommates/friends. From Prague we took trains to Vienna to Amsterdam and lastly to Berlin. We enjoyed the sights and smells of the foreign countries and in typical Year Course fashion, were reckless at times.
Back to Israel we went to begin our final month that was formally known as Special Interest Month. During special interest month we were given the opportunity to choose from different programming options for each week of the month. I personally chose to participate in the JNF “potpourri of outdoor activities” the first week, which included hiking, participating on an archaeological dig (we even found a coin and ancient some nails!!), enjoying a winery, and visiting a kibbutz effected by last summer’s conflict. For my second week I chose to go on the Sea to Sea hike because hiking in the North is just so spectacular. For the third week, most of the section enjoyed lounging at the beach in Tel Aviv and learning how to surf/paddle board during the day, and reliving our Bat Yam glory days at night. To finish up special interest month, I went hiking with a smaller group in the Negev. Although at first I was uncertain what the desert had in store for us (especially because it was 100+ Fahrenheit during the day), the week of hiking in the desert was one of my favorite, and a worthy challenge to end Year Course on.
Although the goodbyes were difficult and the uncertainty of what the future (college for me) held was foreboding, completing Year Course has reassured me of many things. It confirmed my love for Israel, ensured that adjusting to freshman year will be a breeze (I mean if you can survive the Middle East you can survive a college town, right?), and made certain that I’d have places to go almost everywhere in the states. Staying in touch with friends will remind me of one important and simple truth: Year Course never ends!
~ Dan Ference
Dan just returned from Year Course and will be attending Amherst College in the fall.