Monday, January 07, 2008

Mastering my future? אולי Touring every Israeli University and spending time in my Homeland and having a blast in the end? בודאי!

On Monday (12.31.07), I began participating in a program sponsored by the Sochnut (Jewish Agency) for students considering spending a significant amount of time in Israel after graduating college and possibly making Aliyah. I am one of twenty participants in this six day program, one of seven who are bogrei Nativ, and of the remaining thirteen, about half are also in college and the other half have already graduated. While many parts of the program so far have been interesting, especially seeing all of the universities, some of the speakers we have had were somewhat less engaging. On Tuesday, we began with a few speakers from the Sochnut, including Rabbi Paul Freedman, former international director of USY and one of the biggest proponents of Aliyah in the Conservative Movement. In the late afternoon, we traveled to the Jerusalem Post to speak on a personal level with David Horowitz, the Editor in chief of the paper about his experiences as an oleh and current issues. In the evening, we visited an absorption center called Mercaz Hamagshimim in the German Colony, which is supported by Hadassah, and met with some of the residents there.

On Tuesday, I woke up and went to the 7 am minyan down the street at Yeshurun, where I had davened every Friday last year, and then came back to the hotel, where we began to check out for a few days and begin our grand tour of every university in Israel. After breakfast, we traveled to Baka to visit Ulpan Etzion, an ulpan run by the Jewish agency with free tuition for Olim. After that, we went to tour Hebrew University, which was pretty neat for me since most of my Nativ friends (except for the 13 others who did Yeshiva with me) studied there for the first semester last year, and I had never been there before. We toured the whole campus, including the impressive Hecht synagogue (with a window facing the temple mount, the only such one in the world) and the Rothberg International School, and had lunch at the Frank Sinatra Cafeteria. After leaving Hebrew U, we traveled to Tel Aviv, where we visited Tel Aviv University. It had a large and impressive campus, but seemed a bit overwhelming and impersonal. We then went to the Tal Hotel, had dinner and a lecture on the workplace culture in Israel before we had the rest of the evening free. A few of us decided to walk on the tayelet along the beach, and later got ice cream at the yotvata restaurant.

On Wednesday, after a great breakfast (the food at the Tel Aviv hotel was much better than in Jerusalem), we took a bus over to Bar Ilan University in Kiryat Ono. Bar Ilan is unique in the fact that while it is a public university, it was founded as a ‘religious institution.’ This does not mean that it is only for religious students, since at least 50% are secular, but it does mean that all students, no matter what their major, must take at least 7 courses in any area of Jewish Studies. BIU had a very impressive campus, and our tour guide was an olah from Toronto. There is a definite possibility that I would consider studying there for a graduate degree. In the afternoon, we visited the interdisciplinary center in Herzliya, the only private university in Israel (and by extension, the only one that we visited that wasn’t at least 80% on strike). They are well-known for their BA programs taught entirely in English, in which a few of my friends are enrolled, and discussed their new masters programs in English. After that visit, which was relatively short, we went up to Haifa and had a visit to Haifa University. That visit consisted mostly of being taken up to the 29th and 30th floors of the main building and being shown the magnificent view from there, and then basically being told that that was the reason for us to come to their university. In terms of programs, especially after seeing Hebrew U, Tel Aviv and Bar-Ilan, Haifa didn’t do such a good job in distinguishing themselves. But in the end, we did get a free view, some כיבוד קל (light refreshments), and an impression of the university. That night, we went back to Tel Aviv, had dinner (not bad for a hotel), and I decided to stay in the hotel and just hang out since it was raining.

On Thursday morning, I davened, had a pretty good breakfast, and checked out as our group said goodbye to TA and started the two hour drive to the development town of Arad, near the Dead Sea, where we visited the WUJS program, a 5 month Israel experience for college graduates. We saw a bit of the town, saw the absorption center where the participants live, and were treated to a pizza lunch. After we left Arad, we headed to Be’er Sheva and visited Ben-Gurion University, the last of Israel’s major universities on our tour. We arrived, were met by a student who was originally an olah from Ukraine, and before touring the rest of the campus, met with some of the admissions representatives. Although my understanding of Hebrew is close to perfect, it was still pretty disconcerting that the representatives refused to speak any English and didn’t show that they were so interested in us coming to their school. Afterwards, we had a tour of the campus, which was very pretty nice but kind of institutional and 1960’s looking.

After we left Be’er Sheva, we returned to Jerusalem and had a short session to learn about a post-college program called Otzma, and then we were free for the evening. I went with my friend Shira Zeliger and got a Shawarma at Shwarma Hashamen, one of my favorite shawarma places which Josh Goldberg introduced me too my last week of Nativ, and now opened a branch downtown so I don’t have to schlep out to Yochanan Ben Zakkai street. After our shawarma, we went to supersol, which brought back some good memories.

On Friday, I went back to Yeshurun for shacharit, and then relaxed until everyone else woke up for breakfast. We had a couple wrap up sessions that morning, including one with a representative from the sochnut and some lone soldiers to talk about the army. We were free for a few hours before Shabbat, and I went with my friend Andrew to walk around the shuk and then get a shawarma (my 4th!) at Maoz. After showering and preparing for Shabbat, I walked over (in relatively steady rain) to Yeshurun, for their monthly Carlebach-style kabbalat Shabbat with cantor and choir. It was just as nice as I remembered it from when I used to go on Nativ. That evening, we ate Shabbat dinner at Beit Nativ (aka the Fuchsburg center), which brought back nice memories but the food was as relatively unappealing as ever. When we got back to the hotel, we hung out and then had an oneg before I went to bed around ten in order to get some nice Shabbat rest.

The next morning, I left the hotel around 7:40 and walked all the way doen to Baka to my favorite shul in Jerusalem, Kehilat Yedidya. The walk wasn’t as long as I expected, and I was one of the first people at shul, and ended up being asked to lead P’sukei D’zimra. Davening was also just as amazing and spiritual as I remembered, and I saw a number of people I knew. After davening and Kiddush, I walked back to the center of town and ended up at the apartment building across from Beit Nativ, specifically at the home of Rabbi Paul and Nina Freedman, who had invited us over for Kiddush. Rabbi Paul, who was international director of USY for almost 30 years, and his wife are very special people, and it was a pleasure spending time with them and of course singing Nina’s family tune for the Shabbat song menucha v’simcha.

We went back to the hotel for a not so tasty lunch, but one that ended with some nice singing. I took a nap and read for a while, but late in the afternoon I got a knock on my door from my friend Shayna and my new friend Shira, who asked me go walk with them to the old city. I decided to go, and had a great time with them. We ended up at the kotel, which I rarely get to on Shabbat, and which was nice to see being so much emptier and less touristy. I found a minyan for mincha, which was sefardi, and it was neat to daven in a setting that is slightly different than usual, with such changes as habah being done before the torah reading. We walked back to the hotel as the sun was starting to set. Before we knew it, Shabbat was over, and I davened Ma’ariv and we did Havdalah as a group. I then ran upstairs, packed my stuff, and said goodbye to all of my travelmates/friends, new and old.

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