University of Haifa International School Student Blog
As a student looking to study abroad you are usually looking for adventure, interesting classes, and a new culture to explore. Israel is without a doubt the best place for all of these things. Israel is extremely unique, which can lead to very wrong misconceptions about it as well. So before you grab your passport and fly off to the land of milk and honey here are a few things to keep in mind before having the time of your life….
If you’re planning to study here I’m sure you’ve done enough research to know that Israel is not just Jerusalem. Please explain this to your families as well! You’d be surprised how little people know about Israel. Pull out maps if you have to. It’s important that people, your family especially, know this especially for safety reasons. Just because something is happening in Jerusalem does not mean it is affecting Haifa. We are an extreme 2-3 hours away from Jerusalem depending on what type of public transportation you choose.
2. It gets cold in Israel.
I think one of the biggest mistakes myself and the other international students are currently learning is that it DOES get cold here! In fact, it can get cold enough to snow… and it did in Jerusalem in the past few years! So don’t leave with the assumption that many of us had of “well it’s in the Middle East, its always pretty hot there, right?” Wronggggg. My advice, bring sweaters and scarves. This way your packing stays light and you can layer for warmth once it gets cooler here.
Israeli cuisine is very unique and reflects all the different backgrounds of people that have settled in the country. For instance, Ashkenazi Jewish food is extremely different and equally tasty to Sephardic Jewish food. Just as Druze food is different than Arab food… so try everything! Most people who visit Israel for a short time quickly get acquainted with the shawerma, falafel, and hummus, but there is so much more than that. Skip the shawerma and look for the small, unique cafes. You’ll be surprised all that you can find. I can faithfully say one of the best Mexicans restaurants I’ve ever been to is a small street café in Tel Aviv. It’s also very normal to see a mix of cuisines all in one place. It’s not uncommon to be served shashuka, which is uniquely Israeli, with Arabic tabbouleh as a side and a Turkish cheese boureka for dessert. Everything is so unique and authentic, so again, I repeat, TRY EVERYTHING.
If I could scream this from the lush, green, tree covered mountaintops of Israel I would! This is another weird biblical and/or Middle Eastern misconception. The topography of Israel is a miracle actually considering its size. Israel has every type of terrain in its 20,000-kilometer radius! Israel has mountains, lakes, beaches, valleys, and yes even some desert! Anything you want, Israel has it.
All I can say is don’t believe everything you see and read in the media. Things happen here, but not as often and definitely not to the extreme level that the media makes them appear. Israel has actually some of the lowest crime rates I’ve ever seen. Coming from a big city in the USA, I would NEVER use public transportation because it is not safe. Here in Israel I take it virtually every day. Everyone does. There is security everywhere for a reason. I genuinely feel safe everywhere I go, especially in Haifa.
The fact that I have to include this is sad, but foreigners have genuinely asked many Israelis, and myself, if camel riding is a common form of transportation in Israel. NO! This is not the biblical times people. People drive cars, take buses, take trains, and even fly on airplanes when they need to go far distances. Israel is a very advance, high tech country. There are cars…lots of them. Though some days the traffic is so bad I think a camel might be quicker!
One of the main things I hear international visitors being surprised by is the amount of people in uniform you will see day to day. Many of these soldiers carry a gun. It’s not an uncommon site to be sitting in a café and at the table next you a soldier will have his gun with him while sipping iced café. This is common ground in Israel due to its uniqueness of it being a military state. Everyone is required to go to the military once they finish high school. Not all soldiers are combat, many non-combat soldiers are anything from secretaries to computer technicians. They go to work just like everyone else, they just have to do it in uniform. Going back to the safety issue, these soldiers are not there due to safety concerns. They are in uniform because they have to wear them regardless of their job. You’re more likely to see the armed soldiers on the weekends (especially on the trains and buses) when the combat soldiers are going home for Shabbat.
As an incoming student, take a deep breath. Many people here do in fact speak English and just about every sign in Israel is in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. If you are ever lost kindly ask someone if they speak “anglit.” People often speak enough English to understand what you’re saying to help you out. If you go to Arab villages and Druze villages you will also begin to see and hear a lot Arabic. Many historically Arab towns have majority of their signs in Arabic and Arabic is the common language of the area. I was also surprised to hear and see the large amount of Russian speakers here in Israel. Most butcher shops, for example, are Russian owned and it is a commonplace for other Russian immigrants to come in and make their orders in Russian. Living in a diverse city like Haifa I hear all four languages all the time. The language diversity says a lot about the heterogeneity of Israeli culture.
Regardless if you are religious of secular it’s hard to not be amazed at the amount of holy historical sites in Israel. In just about every city there is at least one holy site to at least one religion. Haifa, for example, contains the cave of the Prophet Elijah from the Christian bible as well as the Baha’i Gardens and Shrine to Bab of the Baha’i faith. I feel like all the time I am running into holy sites as I travel through Israel. Along with that, there are always dozens of vendors ready to sell you rosaries, holy water, hamsas, and more for a competitive price. Israel is a perfect place to be for the tourist at heart.
Israelis like to get down to business as soon as they meet you. Don’t be surprised if the first time you meet someone they ask where you’re from, your age, your religion, what you do for a living, are you married, etc. This is very common in Israeli culture. This came as a shock to me and several other American friends who are used to the private culture of the United States. In the USA you would never ask someone how much you make in your career, but in Israel don’t count on it being the same. Israelis will ask because they see it as part of getting to know you. It’s not meant as an invasion of space or that they have a hidden agenda. Israeli culture in general is just very open and direct. My greatest advice before coming here, regardless of your length of stay, is to keep an open mind. There is a lot to learn from the people and the culture here. Studying here is one of the best decisions you can make because of its diversity and immense historical significance. This is the land that many influential people once walked. The land that birthed many religions. The land that attracts visitors from all over the world. As I mentioned before, do not let the media fool you. Israel is vast, brilliant, and one of the best traveling decisions you will make in your entire life!
By: Janelle Day
University of Haifa – International School
Peace and Conflict Studies, Arabic Language Program