I always imagined that studying in London would be incredible. My head filled with images of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, nights attending West End theatre, and pictures of my friends and me with the Royal Guards at Buckingham Palace. When it was time to apply to study-abroad programs, it was no surprise that I submitted an application to study in London, the most popular semester-away destination for Syracuse University students.
Although I wouldn’t admit it at first, I knew that I really wanted to spend my junior semester abroad in a place less familiar, a place filled with new people. As much as I love the land of the Queen, I had a burning desire to study in Tel Aviv, a city I thought of as the land of my people, without the religious slant that characterizes Jerusalem. I’d fallen in love with the city during my Birthright trip the previous year and had extended my stay to explore it further. In Tel Aviv, the sun constantly shines, the beach always beckons, and the Israelis make me feel at home. I knew I had to return to experience Tel Aviv as a local.
I was extremely appreciative to be in Israel, especially because at first, I was worried that my semester in Tel Aviv would not occur due to Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. I knew I’d be safe, but my family was hesitant to let me go. In the end, though, they supported my decision, even though I knew my grandma secretly wished I had ended up in London. In some ways, I felt safer at night in Israel than I did on my home campus in Syracuse.
My year-abroad adventure began with a month-long ulpan, an intensive, immersive Hebrew class that met daily, from Sunday through Thursday for four weeks, class on Sunday was definitely a challenge, but between the life lessons I learned from my colorful and encouraging ulpan teacher and the boom in my Hebrew vocabulary, ulpan was certainly a worthwhile experience.
I lived with other international students in a dorm across the street from Tel Aviv University. The dorm campus houses both Israeli and American students, but in separate dorms. I quickly found, as I expected, that most students in my program – who hailed from schools across the county and a mix of Jewish affiliations, as well as a handful of non-Jews who were there to advance their knowledge of Arabic or the Middle East – were in Tel Aviv to enjoy the city. For the most part, the Jewish students identified as “just Jewish,” including those who observed Shabbat and kept kosher.
Although I’d visited in Israel before, I’d never lived there, and there were many things I had to learn about Israeli life – including how to deal with buying food. Because of the long lines to check out (often involving a wait three times longer than I was used to at home), most trips to the supermarket made me want to pull my hair out. And forget about buying items before Shabbat! Some weeks, I would buy my food at the outdoor market, where fresh fruits and vegetables always were plentiful.
Another major difference in Israel is Shabbat, which begins at sunset on Friday and runs through sunset on Saturday. Unlike at home, where Saturday often is a day for errands, shopping and catching up, Israel is a Jewish state, so most stores are closed, and public transportation, my only means of getting around, halts. At first, the inability to get around frustrated me. But soon, my friends and I fell into a weekend routine that defined our semester, and I began to enjoy my lazy Saturdays. Unlike our previous college experiences, we had gloriously long weekends with freedom to do whatever we wanted. Our weekends were filled with incredible Israeli breakfasts, sun-filled days at the beach, delicious Mediterranean dinners, laughter in the back of taxis, and long nights exploring the city’s vibrant nightlife. Sunday was our designated beach day, with our biggest decision being which beach to lounge on. We mixed up our weekend ritual with some hiking trips for our entire program, a journey to Eilat, the beach resort city, and an occasional trip to Europe.
By the end of the semester, Israel was mine. I had explored the country in her entirety, from the very northern tip of the Golan Heights down through the Negev to Eilat, and from my home base of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and back. I spent a few weekends on different kibbutzim, sampled Shabbat dinners throughout the state, and, best of all, made some wonderful friends – both fellow Americans studying abroad and Israeli peers, who so graciously helped me make their homeland my own.
Now that I am back in America, I am counting the days until I can once again go home to my favorite city in the world.
Justin Dorsen is a marketing and communications intern at the Union for Reform Judaism. He is from Middletown, NJ, and is studying at Syracuse University, where he will be a senior in the fall.