University of Haifa International School Student Blog
Before arriving at the University of Haifa, I had no idea what to expect. Not only had I never traveled abroad without my parents, but I also had never even been near Israel before. I felt a mixture of nervous excitement and fear, wondering why I always insisted upon putting myself out of my comfort zone. My first impression of Haifa was of its beauty. I’d spent a day in Tel Aviv and frankly felt a bit overwhelmed by the crowded streets and hordes of people. It was too busy to appreciate in my nervous state and I yearned for somewhere a bit quieter. I got that with Haifa. After riding past what looked to be a thriving urban center at the bottom of Mt. Carmel, I ascended the mountain on steep, winding roads past lovely homes with trees and flowers I’d missed in Tel Aviv. The University, situated on the top of Mt. Carmel, offered the most striking views of the city and Mediterranean below.
Once I arrived at the dorms and headed into the Moadon (clubhouse) to hopefully get settled, I was feeling nervous again. How would I meet people? Where would they all be from? However, this anxiety was swept away after meeting with the Madrichim, or social coordinators. They were casual and friendly, immediately making me feel more comfortable. After looking around and seeing young people from all over the world carrying luggage and wearing apprehensive looks on their faces, I realized we were all in the same boat and relaxed. Almost immediately, another student introduced himself to me and began making small talk and jokes. I began to feel more comfortable.
For our first social event, the Madrichim were taking us out somewhere in Haifa. I arrived at the air-conditioned Moadon early; sitting on one of the comfy leather couches and waited for other people to meet there. After some other Ulpan students sat down around me, we naturally began introducing ourselves and getting to know each other. It was a bit awkward at first, but soon became easy. I chastised myself at being so nervous to meet people because I’d forgotten how simple it was. Human nature is to be social and making friends hasn’t changed since grade school. All you have to do is talk to people. The night out in Haifa was enjoyable and allowed me to get to know some people better—after this I knew I needed to take advantage of all the events planned by the Madrichim. It would be a waste to not do them as they were guided, allowed me to better my relationships with other students, and last but not least…free!
Having never taken Hebrew before in my life, I surprisingly felt more comfortable. I didn’t need to worry about class placement because I knew I was a beginner. My class all seemed to feel the same way, and was thus all the more enthusiastic to learn. Our teacher, Sara Lee, was patient, kind, and funny, praising our every awkward attempt at speaking Hebrew with a loud “Yofi! (wonderful)” and clapping. That’s not to say class wasn’t intense. With only a month to learn, we moved incredibly fast, working as hard as possible in the morning until Sara Lee would say “You earned your falafel” and we would go on lunch break. In order to keep up, a few hours of out of class homework and studying was also necessary each day. Despite this, we were allotted a fair amount of free time—class normally lasted from 8:30-1 and with two to three hours of homework on top of that we still had a half a day to do as we pleased. Hebrew came easier than I thought it would, possibly because I already studied Chinese and nothing could be more difficult than a language without an alphabet! Within a few days, we could already say greetings and short phrases, exhilarated and immensely proud of ourselves. It was interesting learning why everyone was there. Answers ranged from undergraduates wanting to learn Hebrew to use in a future career in international relations to those pursuing graduate degrees and Ph.D.s in Jewish studies to those few, like me, who studied religious studies and wanted to be able to read and interpret religious texts in their original language.
Once we all got Israeli phone numbers, we set up a whatsapp group chat with as many Ulpan participants as possible in it. That way, if you wanted to travel anywhere, you could simply message the group for more information or to ask if anyone wanted to join you. This simplified our lives a great deal and within a few days a group of us was going to the beach after class pretty regularly. It was amazing to me that I could sit in a classroom for hours and then take an easy twenty minute bus ride and find myself laying on a beautiful white sand beach, staring out at the warm, sparkling Mediterranean and wondering if life could get any better. The beach was conveniently lined with shops and restaurants should you get hungry or thirsty (or realize, like me, that you desperately needed sunscreen).
In addition to traveling with the Madrichim, many of us also traveled with friends. Public transit is surprising easy, convenient, and cheap in Israel—especially with the help of the app Moovit. One of my favorite trips was when we went to the old city of Akko, a beautiful Arab city north of Haifa. Though all the Madrichim trips were awesome, traveling with five people is less stressful than going with the entire Ulpan. Akko’s old city, like Haifa, was a mixed city, but with more Arabs than I had seen before in Haifa. This was especially exciting because we got to eat shwarma, a delicious Arab meat dish in a warm pita. The shuk, or market, was loud, active, and lived in. It had a distinctly less tourist-oriented feel and was therefore all the more appealing. We haggled over Arabic coffee, coffee cups, and knick-knacks, proud of ourselves for becoming well-versed shoppers. We climbed the city walls that survived Napoleon’s siege for a better view and laughed as wind whipped our hair and ruined our pictures.
As a student who will remain at the University of Haifa International School during the fall semester, I am so happy I chose to participate in the Hebrew Ulpan beforehand. Not only did I build lasting relationships with people of all different ages, ethnicities, and faiths, but also I became comfortable living in a city so different from my home. I feel like my Hebrew knowledge gives me a leg up here (despite the fact most people speak at least a little English!). Additionally, I hope staying the semester will also further improve my Hebrew. I am sad for the Ulpan to end, but excited that I don’t have to leave just yet. As the fall semester doesn’t begin for another month, I already have plans to travel to Europe with some Ulpan friends who are staying, visit a friend in Prague, and show my visiting parents around Israel. I look forward to the future and can’t wait for the experiences I have yet to have in Israel and at the University.
Atlanta, GA, USA