Welcome to Israel!

Shalom everyone! This semester I’m studying abroad at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I’m starting a blog to share my experiences with my wonderful friends, family, and professors, who have helped me grow emotionally and intellectually. Below is my first entry, but first, an interesting observation about Israeli culture: cigarette smoking is very common.

I asked a couple Israelis why, and they told me to deal with stress. That makes sense to me in some respect, especially with the mandatory military service and Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As I learned in my psychopharmacology course, nicotine addiction is the highest cause of premature death and preventable illness that we know of, killing the highest proportion of its users compared to any other drug.

More so, nicotine is addictive because it involves the activation of acetylcholine (Ach) receptors located in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which stimulates burst firing of dopaminergic neurons in the nucleus accumbens (NAc), which is responsible for a feeling of pleasure or reward. Some (not so) fun facts about nicotine: it increases the probability of cardiovascular problems; it increases (by about five times) the rate of thrombosis in women who use oral contraceptives; at high doses, you can induce vomiting and tremors. Withdrawal from nicotine induces irritability, insomnia, headaches and stomach aches.

Anyway, on to my actual experience of my first week in Israel! I would love to hear from anyone who wants to drop a comment (yes, I just said that)!

Day 1 and 2: 

I got to the Orlando airport around 10AM last Sunday, through security no problem, and grabbed a quick bite at Bahama Breeze (had a great salad with goat cheese). From there, I boarded the plane to JFK and watched some downloaded Netflix. When we landed in New York, I took a bus to another terminal, grabbed a sandwich, some popcorn, and went to the gate. It was weird, though, because they had an extra layer of security for people boarding the plane to Israel, so we had to take our shoes off and get our carry-ons scanned again, etc.

Once on the plane, I settled next to a man who fell asleep instantly (I wish I could’ve done that). It was an eleven hour flight, and I only slept for 90 minutes—much to my dismay—so I ended up watching three movies: Shazam (pretty entertaining), Night School (funny, love Kevin Hart), and The Martian (always good). After I got off the plane, I collected my bags, slowly went through customs, and met up with a family friend, Varda Livney, who was kind enough to house me on her Kibbutz since I wasn’t able to get into my dorm until Wednesday. 

For those who don’t know, a Kibbutz is a type of settlement—a collective community—unique to Israel. Kibbutz Gezer, where Varda lives, is one of more than 270 Kibbutzim (plural of Kibbutz) in Israel. Fun fact, Kibbutz Gezer also was the first baseball field in the country!

Anyway, after we got there, I took a much needed nap and then went off with Varda to a mall and got an Israeli SIM card (yay, data!) and exchanged some dollars for shekels (roughly 28 cents per shekel). While at the mall, I tried an iced coffee from Aroma (Israeli Starbucks), which was pretty good! It’s basically a coffee-flavored American (i.e. sugary) smoothie. We then went back to Kibbutz Gezer and had some dinner and I hung out with Varda’s family before I called it a night around 8:00 PM (1:00 PM EST). 

Day 3:

When I woke up, Varda drove me to the train station in Ramla, where I boarded the train for Tel Aviv. I accidentally went too far and ended up near Natanya. Oops. I turned around and got off at the right stop: Tel Aviv HaShalom. From there, I walked around the Sarona market before finding my way to the Dizengoff Center, a huge indoor shopping mall. Then I walked to HaCarmel market where I haggled over a portable charger with an Israeli man who couldn’t speak English (which was unfortunate because I can’t really speak Hebrew yet. My language immersion program, called Ulpan, began today, the 8th).

Afterwards, I went on to the Aviv beach where I sat down at the Banana Beach restaurant, ate hummus and pita, and watched the sunset. It was beautiful. There was a nice sea breeze coming in, so it wasn’t too hot, and there were a lot of people playing beach volleyball or just lounging around. When the sun started to set, you saw an array of reds, blues, and yellows (for a scientific explanation, see my article on Why The Sky is Blue for my school newspaper, the Old Gold & Black).

After sundown, I took the train back to the Kibbutz—getting off at the correct stop—where Varda’s husband, Steve Burnstein, kindly picked me up and drove me back to the kibbutz where I hit the hay early again. Great first full day!

Day 4: 

Varda drove me from Kibbutz Gezer to the dorms at HebrewU. After bringing my luggage to the apartment, I went on a campus tour. The dorm is a fifteen minute walk to campus, which I don’t recommend in the Jerusalem heat. It has been very hot and dry here; there aren’t a lot of clouds in the sky, which is nice to look at but not fun after a while (my new sunburns would agree). Nonetheless, the campus had a powerful ancient style beauty. There were two breathtaking views. One was a skyline of Jerusalem where you could see Dome of the Rock (golden dome) and the other was an amphitheater where the HebrewU had its founding ceremony.

After the campus tour, we went on a shopping trip and bought pans, silverware, food, and other stuff for the apartment (I waited fifteen minutes in line to buy six bowls—riveting). From there, I went out to a dinner (which was paid for! Yay!) where I tried Humshukka, a hummus and shakshuka mix. That was good! After that, I just went back to the dorm and fell asleep. 

Day 5:

Woke up and went to orientation. They had coffee and cakes for breakfast but I waited for the hummus and pita they had between sessions. After orientation, I went to a meeting for an extracurricular program called Thrive, which further immerses students in Israeli culture (by taking them on different programs like a basic training weekend with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and to Tel Aviv to meet CEOs of start-ups like Waze). Then I went to the grocery store where I couldn’t read any of the nutrition stuff (cause it was all in Hebrew) so I ended up getting bread, peanut butter, and jelly — very exciting. I also stopped by the local Japanese restaurant, where I got sushi (of course) and a side of rice that was really big enough to be the meal; I ended up eating it all, though, because we don’t have a microwave, and cold rice doesn’t appeal to me.

From there, I went on a practical tour of Jerusalem where I found out a German exchange student on my program never had a bagel. EVER! (Don’t worry, I promised we would get bagels.) We wandered around the Shuk (market) on Ben Yehuda street for a little bit, and I learned how to say “Can I taste this” in Hebrew because they have a lot of fruit and vegetable vendors lining the streets.

After we left the Shuk, two friends from the program and I met this nice Israeli lady on the Light Rail who was kind enough to remind us which stop we needed to take. From there, I went to the gym and then came back to the dorm, showered, finished unpacking, and went to sleep.

Day 6:

Woke up and went to the gym with a few friends. From there, I went to the university to buy a textbook, but the bookstore was already closed for Shabbat, so I went to the grocery store instead and bought water and sunscreen. I then went back to the Japanese restaurant (called Japan Japan) and ordered the rice— plus chicken —for my meal.

After lunch, I came back, showered, and hung out with my apartment mates. There are five of us sharing the place. We each have our own bedroom, but share two half baths, one shower, and a kitchen/living area. We soon got ready for Shabbat and walked to services at congregation Ramot Zion, a traditional conservative temple.

After services, we had a nice Shabbat dinner rife with Challah, chicken, potatoes, and rice (I took home leftover chicken! Yay for protein!). Then friends came over to our apartment and we just talked. It was a great way to learn about other cultures. I had some very interesting conversations with a few students from Switzerland and Germany before we all headed to bed. Some highlights include learning that:

  1. Swiss people have mandatory military service. 
  2. Many Europeans say “we’ve been together for X-time,” while many Americans say “we’ve been dating for X-time.” Additionally, most European relationships involve a lot less tinder/social media apps and a lot more personal contact (seems like a good idea, personally).
  3. German students finish undergraduate education in three years, and many continue straight into a Master’s program (two years).
  4. Many people speak at least three languages. Some I met spoke up to six!

Day 7:

I woke up and went downstairs to the picnic my program arranged for the study abroad students. We hung out for a little while, ate good hummus, and tried to keep cats away from the food (Israel has cats like America has squirrels).

Around 1:00PM, I went to a home for a nice Shabbat lunch. It was a lot of fun and the meal was delicious—especially the sushi salad (like Poke with cooked salmon, mango, cucumbers, etc.). After that, I went back to the Student Village (dorms) where a bunch of us met up and walked to the Old City in Jerusalem. We went through the Shuk and ended up at the Kotel (Western Wall). It was beautiful and spiritually powerful. I’m not the most observant Jew, but I went up to the Wall, prayed, and left a message my mom sent me with in it (as many people do). A few friends and I went into the Prayer Hall, which was really interesting because there were a lot of Chasidic Jews praying and reading Torah (the Old Testament).

We stayed at the Kotel for Havdallah (the transition between Shabbat and the new week), which was nice. It involved a lot of small groups praying and dancing to celebrate. For me, though, the spiritual or religious experience of my first Havdallah in Israel was not extremely moving. I didn’t really know what was happening because the prayers were said so quickly and a lot of under-the-breath prayers were spoken; I’m more used to the musical Havdallah services at Camp Ramah Darom. Nevertheless, it was a cool experience.

After we left the wall, we spent thirty minutes getting lost near the Old City before finding our way to Ben Yehuda street where we split up to get food. I went with two others to a bagel shop while the other ten or so went to get falafel and schwarma. After joining them at the outside tables, we walked around the street and made our way to the bus (since we weren’t really up for another forty five minute walk). We got off at the wrong stop, though, so our good friend Google Maps helped us find our way home (by walking an extra fifteen minutes). We got back safely, though, and went off to bed!

Conclusion

All in all, this was an excellent first week. I met a lot of interesting people and had a great time getting to know them! I can’t wait to dive more deeply into the Ulpan so I can start speaking Hebrew. Until next week, everyone!
P.S. I plan to do this every week, but may not succeed. Sorry in advance.

4 thoughts on “Welcome to Israel!”

  1. Great first week! Brought back lots of memories for me. kept saying “I was there!” Enjoy your ulpan. Appears that you are with a great group of students. That is important. I am looking forward to future blogs and to living vicariously through your adventures and through my memories.

  2. Very enjoyable blog, I feel like I’m there with you! Looking forward to watching your growth as you continue your Israeli journey.

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