I think the University of Maine’s Study Abroad Office would probably rest a little easier at night if I’d chosen somewhere other than Israel for my study abroad journey this coming spring, but I love a little risk.
Prior to coming to UMaine, I took a gap year and did some traveling alone. I began my trip by going to Israel for Birthright, a 10-day trip for Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 meant to educate and — hopefully — bring one or two back to live in Israel permanently. During the trip, I learned about the country and some of the customs there. In addition, I traveled from the desert to the Dead Sea and to the cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Inevitably, I became infatuated with the country. So when I decided to study abroad, I chose to go back.
Israel is an interesting country, younger than many other countries in the world. The history of the territory spans back to around 1000 BCE and is rife with conflict and religious shifts. In 1948, Israel gained independence as a country. I’m hoping to fill in the gaps between 1000 BCE and 1948 while I’m there.
During my gap year, while in Israel, I had multiple experiences that shifted my perspectives over and over again. The first experience occurred early in the trip. My group and I had taken a hike to a mountain that overlooks the border between Syria and Israel in the north of the country. While atop the mountain, our guide for the trip, Gil, gave us a brief summary of some of the conflicts that Israel is currently involved in within the Middle East. As we stood there and listened, a loud but muffled boom was heard from far below. Whispers spread throughout the group, many of us flinching, all of us looking around to the others for confirmation. The same question was whispered from 30 different mouths.
“Was that a bomb?”
Gil, who hadn’t even flinched, realized that he should address what had just happened. He confirmed that it was, in fact, a bomb, and just a couple of miles below us, a bomb had gone off in the Syrian territory. He was so nonchalant about it, so used to it, that the group listened to him in awe. I stood there thinking about the fact that people may have just been killed a few miles away from me, and I had heard it happen.
The next experience happened a couple of days after the trip. I was in a mall in Tel Aviv with an Israel soldier I’d met on the trip who let me stay with him before my flight to Europe. We were drinking coffee and chatting when the bomb sirens at the mall went off. I shot up out of my seat in the middle of the food court and frantically looked around, wondering what the exit plan was. Ron, the soldier, looked up at me and tried not to laugh. No one else in the mall even hinted at moving, let alone stood up from their seats ready to make a quick escape. The bomb sirens are frequent, Ron explained to me. The risk is always there.
But the risk is, when taken into account, not much higher than studying in many other countries in the world right now, and it’s well-worth it for me.
I am not a highly religious person, but I connect with the people of Israel because of their progressive values and their love for their country. The Israeli people are incredibly open and welcoming. Their viewpoints differ greatly from our own Western ideals due to the years of conflict in the Middle East. For instance, the country is incredibly liberal on social issues, and they all seem to have an impeccable sense of style — which is something I hope to pick up while I’m there. Being in Israel the first time made me feel that I had a home away from home, if I ever needed one.
That time seems to have come. Growing up in Maine and going to college 35 minutes from home was not the best decision I’ve ever made. So on Jan. 13, I’ll head to Israel for almost six months, with goals of picking up some level of fluency in Hebrew, gaining an understanding of the country’s culture and hopefully filling in some of those gaps in my understanding of the country’s history and conflict between 1000 BCE and 1948. Stay tuned.