University of Haifa International School Student Blog
Initially, when I told people I was going to be studying in Israel, I got mixed reactions. Typical responses would range from “Isn’t it dangerous over there?” to blank looks and “But, why?” Sure, some people would voice their jealousy and that they’d always wanted to go, or that they’d been and it was amazing. But, for the most part, my choice to study abroad in Israel was unique among my peers. Even I couldn’t completely discern my motivations. I am a Religious Studies major and figured it would only make sense to go to the holy land. Also, I wanted to pick up some Hebrew so I could read religious texts in their original language and study translation discrepancies. However, I never expected to have such a layered and complex experience. Many people talk nostalgically about how their abroad experiences changed their lives. For me, there was never a specific moment when I knew my time in Israel was having an extraordinary impact on my life. Instead, it was like a slow build – I’d look back on moments and think “Oh, that was it.”
I had no idea of what to expect before arriving at the University of Haifa. I was excited and a bit nervous, wondering why I’d thought this was such a good idea. Haifa’s natural beauty was both calming and intimidating. I wondered about the kinds of people that lived in such a place, and if the sparkling Mediterranean and beautiful winding roads of Mt. Carmel had become old news to them. After arriving at the Moadon (clubhouse) of University of Haifa’s dorms, my nerves were back. I’ve never had trouble meeting people and making friends, but not knowing a single soul in a foreign country is enough to flare up the nerves! Looking back, I realize I had nothing to worry about. Everyone was in the same boat, and with the help of the Madrichim (social coordinators), we had all the support we needed.
Though my August Hebrew Ulpan was required by my home University, I would have participated in it either way. Knowing just a bit of the language of the country you’re studying in does wonders for confidence. Within days, I was smiling and saying
“עברית קצת מדברת אני (Anis metaberett kstat ivrit)” constantly. Our teacher, Sara Lee, was patient, kind, and funny, praising our every awkward attempt at speaking Hebrew with a loud “Yofi! (wonderful)” and clapping. Ulpan class usually lasted from 8:30-1 and even with homework, we still had half a day to do as we pleased. I made great friends during this time, going to the beach and exploring Haifa almost every day after class. In addition to the Madrichim organized trips to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and around Haifa, I also did some traveling on my own with friends. A favorite trip of mine was when we went to the old city of Akko, a stunning Arab city north of Haifa. In the shuk (market), we haggled over Arabic coffee cups and knick-knacks, secretly proud of ourselves for becoming well-versed shoppers. Afterwards, 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.
Since I had arrived in Israel early for the Ulpan, I had a month before my regular University classes began. I decided to use this time to do a bit of solo traveling around Israel. I know this may seem ordinary to most people, but it was to be, at twenty years old, my first time traveling alone whilst out of the United States. Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive. In order to be prepared for anything, I read countless articles beforehand on solo travel (particularly in Israel), scheduled my destinations and booked my hostels ahead of time, and mentally played with various “what if” situations. In the end, all this was completely unnecessary. I visited Nazareth, Tiberius, and the Sea of Galilee, encountering virtually no obstacles, and meeting loads of interesting people along the way. Not to mention the sites! Traveling alone was extremely formative for me. My confidence skyrocketed – not simply in my ability to navigate Israel, but also in myself. I felt as though I belonged.
Later during my break from class in September, my parents flew in from Atlanta to visit. It was wonderful reuniting with them and acting as a sort of tour guide and translator for their trip. By the end, they were just as taken with Israel as I was and didn’t want to go home. A few highlights of our time together included visiting Eilat and the Dead Sea, hiking through the magnificent canyons of Petra to view the unbelievable archeological feats of an ancient civilization, and cooking and eating a traditional lunch with a Druze family in Daliyat El Carmel. It really eased their worries to see me in my element, and removed any negative preconceptions they had about the country. I would absolutely recommend Israel as a destination for family vacation or travel.
Though it was sad to part with my parents, I was ready to begin class and get back into the swing of things. My classes in the University of Haifa International School proved to be intellectually challenging and thought provoking. It is currently midterm season, and I am finishing up my exams for each of my four classes. I am taking Jewish Spiritual Practices, Arab-Israeli Relations, Contemporary Arab Thought & Culture, and Bible: Soul’s Journey to Completion. Though I have my favorites, I genuinely find myself enjoying the subject matter of every course. Because I have very little to no background in the material, I can absorb everything freshly and without any bias. Though the academics are rigorous, my workload is very manageable, leaving me a solid amount of free time.
I have used this time to continue to travel both around Israel and abroad. Israel’s convenient proximity to Europe makes flights there fairly inexpensive. In fact, though I have traveled to four countries outside of Israel during my time here, the cost of all those plane tickets together is still under the cost of a ticket from the United States to Europe. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Prague, Berlin, Dublin, and most recently, Madrid. I had friends from the States studying abroad in most of the cities I could stay with, even further cutting costs. Madrid was much cleaner than I expected, with beautiful people, art, and architecture. We stuffed ourselves with tapas (shareable plates) and enjoyed the Christmas festivities and decorations in the city center squares. Our hostel offered a free tour, letting us learn a bit about the history of the city and Spain itself. We saw the sprawling royal palace (largest royal palace currently in existence, if I’m not mistaken), the beautiful Almudena Cathedral, and the bustling Plaza del Sol. One of my favorite excursions was spending several hours in the Reina Sofía museum, perusing works by Picasso and Dali. Currently, Madrid is on a back end of an economic crisis, and thus trying to expand its tourism industry. As a result, plane tickets are extremely cheap. Now is the time to visit!
As you can see, studying in Israel has not only been an incredible experience in itself, but also a gateway to other opportunities and explorations. I’m so happy and grateful I chose to study here instead of somewhere in Europe, or other more common abroad destinations. I’ve learned a great deal about the history and culture of Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike. Though I’m sad my experience will come to an end at the beginning of January, I feel like it will continue to follow and influence me throughout my life.
Atlanta, GA, USA