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By zamorse

Well, this is it. My last blog post. I can't believe the semester is almost over, but it is. I'm a weird space right now---I still have over a week left of the semester, 2 papers and 2 exams standing in my way of academic freedom, but I've already begun reflecting on my semester. I said my first goodbye already to a friend who had to go home for medical reasons, I just came back from my last day trip with the international school (we went to the Lebanese border, a Druze village for lunch, the Syrian border in the Golan Heights, and wine tasting).
This is going to be a week of lasts. Last trip to the shouk (market), last weekend in the holy land, etc, and as more people start to leave, it feels even more real.
January seems like only yesterday--when I was scared and nervous as to what this semester would have in store for me. I had quite the semester and quite the adventure in the fall in Korea, and I was worried this semester would be a let down compared to the adventure I had in Seoul. I didn't speak any Korean, knew nothing of the culture, and knew nobody there, but ended up having an amazing semester.
Israel was the opposite. I speak Hebrew, I have family and friends here, and I had been here three times previously. I was worried it wouldn't be an adventure---it would just feel like school.
That's definitely not what happened.
Studying in Haifa was a great decision. I got out of the mercaz (center) of the country and went to a working city. I got to explore the culture in Israel like I had never seen it before, met some great friends along the way, and had an amazing semester in the process.
Now it's back to DC and off to my next adventure---senior year.

By zamorse

As I withdraw to my room to start studying for finals, I'm starting to look back at the amazing semester I've had. There are so many lists that I could come up with to commemorate my semester, five favorite foods, five top sites, etc, but since I had already been to Israel before, the five biggest surprises for me is the most important list. I thought I knew what to expect, so the list of my top five biggest surprises I think says a lot about my semester.

1) Israel is all about nature---national parks, beaches, mountains, forests, etc. It's such a small country, but you can literally do everything here, and Israelis are obsessed with getting out and about. From going snorkeling in the south, to going skiing in the north, to going mountain bike riding, you can literally do everything here.

2) Israelis are impatient. They always seem like they're in a hurry. Or at least that's what I thought. Maybe I got used to the fast paced walking environment of DC, but Israelis are really slow walkers. More like they stroll everywhere.

3) Israel is a small country, and if you look on a map of the world you know what I'm talking about. Even if you look at a map of Israel, you wonder how they fit a country of 8 million people into such a small place. And that's what I thought before I got here. But if you exclude the three big cities of Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, the countryside has lots of empty spaces and big houses, not what I was expecting at all.

4) I did not remember how loud Israelis are. It's a fact of life here, if you want something, you have to be loud. But that adds an interesting dynamic to the culture here.

5) Lastly, and I think most importantly, Israel is not all about the conflict with the Arabs. You could get that sense from reading the news everyday, but its certainly not the case in the day to day life of average Israelis. They have jobs and go to school and have social lives, just like everybody else around the world. From studying international affairs and conflict resolution, the fact that this country is not just about the conflict can be hard to forget.


By zamorse

Even though this is my blog, I want to use this post to talk about the dual society of people studying abroad in Haifa. Before I came to Israel I assumed that everybody studying here would be studying Hebrew and want to be in Israel because it's Israel. At Haifa, especially, that's not the case. A lot of people came to the university to study Arabic and Arab culture, and Israel is as close to that as they could get.

This weekend is Memorial Day and Independence Day and because we don't have class on Monday or Tuesday my friends and I decided to get out of Haifa and go explore Tel Aviv. Which is where I am, sitting in the common room of the hostel. We came with a big group, 9 people to celebrate my friend's birthday on Friday night. On Saturday, our group split up. Half stayed in Tel Aviv and half went on to Ramallah in the West Bank. Now, it's important to note that these friends of mine purposefully went to the West Bank on Israeli Independence Day because they wanted to go see Palestinian protests in the West Bank.

For me, this idea is crazy. I came to Israel to experience Israel and it's hard for me to comprehend wanting to leave Israel on Independence Day to go to the West Bank. But that was exactly their point. Much of the Middle East is unsafe for Study Abroad right now (Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, etc) and maybe their school didn't have a study abroad program in Jordan. And because they couldn't study abroad in the West Bank, Israel was the closest they could get.

My friend group is pretty split on the political spectrum of the conflict, but we're actually able to have civil conversations on the conflict all the time. We don't avoid talking about it, and we've mastered the idea of criticizing somebody's idea, not the person themselves.

This weekend is just a perfect microcosm of who comes to study abroad at the University of Haifa. Some people come to Haifa to experience Palestinian culture, and some people come to study Israeli culture. And we're able to talk about our differences and share experiences.

That's a way more valuable experience about conflict resolution than anything I could read in a textbook.

By zamorse

There is a ceremony on campus tonight (and all around the country) for Holocaust Remembrance Day and I thought this would be a good time to talk a little about all of the different holidays going on recently here in Israel. We are right now in the middle of the holiday season in Judaism and in Israeli culture, with at least five holidays in a three week period. Its nuts.

Last week was Passover, made famous by Matza or the unleavened bread that Jews eat for eight days. My parents came to visit, we had a nice banquet on the night of the holiday, and it was like spring break all over Israel.

Tonight is the Holocaust Remembrance Day, called Yom Hashoah (יום השואה) in Hebrew. It is Israel's remembrance day for the 6 million Jews that perished in the Holocaust. It is a day of mourning and reflection. Places of entertainment, like movie theaters, will be closed by law tonight. Flags are lowered to half-mast and it is customary to wear white.

Next Monday night is Israel's Memorial Day called Yom Hazikaron (יום הזיכרון) in Hebrew. The day is dedicated to Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. It is also a very somber day in Israel. A siren is sounded all over the country at which point Israel's stop whatever they're doing (including driving) and stand in silence.

Yom Hazikaron is immediately followed the next day by Yom Haatzmaut (יום העצמאות), or Israel's Independence Day. It is not on May 14 (when Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel in 1948) because it follows the Jewish calender, which is a lunar calendar, and changes dates every year. This, of course, is one of the happiest days on the Jewish and Israeli calendar. Ceremonies are held all over the country, especially the capital Jerusalem. More than ceremonies, there are huge parties held all over the country. There are Israeli flags everywhere in Israel right now on the streets getting ready for this outpouring of patriotism.

There is another holiday, Lag Ba'Omer int he middle of May. There is also one ongoing right now, called Sefirah (Counting of the Omer), counting the days between Passover and Shavuot (a harvest festival in June).

So to say that it is a hectic time in Judaism and here in Israel is an understatement. There is a lot going on, but I think it really speaks to how Israeli culture operates. One day is Memorial Day, one of the saddest days of the year, and the very next day is Independence Day, by far the happiest day of the year. So we'll see what happens.

By zamorse

Israelis take you much more serious when you speak Hebrew to them. Most of them speak English, and most pretty fluently, but when you speak in Hebrew to them, they not only understand you better, they take you more seriously. At a restaurant when ordering food, on the bus asking for directions, at a store looking to buy something---the difference between English and Hebrew is surprising.

There's a whole sort of stigma and stereotype when it comes to speaking English. Sometimes I have to be really pushy and say, "I don't speak English, talk to me in Hebrew" to maybe get a cheaper deal at a store, or for an Israeli to feel more comfortable telling me what/how to do something.

For example, on Friday I took the bus down from Haifa to a town a little north of Tel Aviv called Ra'anana, famous in Israel for being home to many Americans. I got on the bus, and the bus driver asked me where I wanted to go (in Hebrew). I told him that I wanted to go to Ra'anana (with an American accent) and he told me that it was 25 sheckles, in English. Now that he knew I was American, he spoke to me on a whole different level. He didn't cheat me, and it wasn't anymore expensive than it normally was, but because he knew that I was American, I felt like our conversation was on a different level.

And I find that it's very hard to talk to Israelis my age. They speak so quickly and with so much slang that it's often very hard to understand them, plus they all speak English pretty well. But, I volunteer at a Holocaust survivors center, and I find that it's very easy to speak to the elderly because they don't know English and they speak very slowly. It's also easy to speak to my Hebrew professor, of course.

I've been working on trying to speak Hebrew with more of an Israeli accent, but it's really hard. I'm starting to think that speaking Hebrew with more of an Israeli accent is more important than knowing vocab. I have two more months here, so we'll see.

By zamorse

This week was Passover vacation here in Israel. Passover is the Spring holiday in Judaism that celebrates the exodus from Egypt. It's a big family holiday for eight days, and Jews travel all over the world to be with their families and experience the holiday. It's know to most non-Jews by the unleavened tasteless bread that we eat, Matza. In Israel it's like Spring Break, people get days off from work, and the universities are shut down for the week. In the diaspora (outside of Israel), there's two seders (big meals) on the first two nights of the holiday, but in Israel there's only one seder. We went to my mom's friends house in Ra'anana to have the seder with their extended Israeli family.

My parents and grandmother came to visit this week since I didn't have school, and it's been really nice to see them. Instead of staying in Haifa near the university (which is shut down this week), we're staying in Herzliya, which is in the center of the country, just north of Tel Aviv, right on the beach. We rented a car from the airport and have been traveling all over Israel this week.

Today we went to Jerusalem and the Old City, went to the Western Wall and walked through the Jewish Quarter, then walked outside the Old City and had lunch at the famous King David Hotel. And what an interesting experience that was. Today is Easter, so the Christian Quarter was busy celebrating that holiday. It's Passover in the Jewish Quarter, and there are Muslim riots on the Temple Mount in the Muslim Quarter (2 people injured, 24 arrested just this morning). The Old City is a walled ancient city (.35 square miles) in the middle of Jerusalem and has four quarters. The biggest is the Muslim Quarter, followed by the Christian Quarter, then the Jewish Quarter, and finally the Armenian Quarter. So to say that a lot was going on today in such a small area was an understatement.

Yesterday we went to a museum in Tel Aviv. The day before we went to the oldest neighborhood in Tel Aviv to walk around. We've gone up to Haifa this week to see the university and walk around the national park across the street. We went to Yad Vashem (The Holocaust Museum) in Jerusalem, and Beit Hatfutsot (The Diaspora Museum) at Tel Aviv University.

It's been a busy week, but it's been really nice seeing my family since I don't get to see them very much. And living in Herzliya this week is a totally different experience then Haifa---much less diversity, much more wealth, and many more Americans.

I've been to the three largest cities in Israel this week. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa---each with their own unique flavor and characteristics. And I've had the great experience of having my family come to visit me in my second study abroad location. Until next time!

By zamorse

Studying abroad is all about adventures with your friends. That's why this weekend my friends and I rented a car and drove to the other end of the country to have a little adventure.

We drove down from Haifa on Saturday morning at 6AM all the way down to the Dead Sea, only about a three hour drive, but literally on the other side of the country, that's how small Israel is. We found a spa on the side of the road, and for only about $20, had access to pretty much everything there.

The Dead Sea is a body of water lying on the border between Jordan and Israel that is so dense with salt you float it. You walk into the water, turn around, and fall backwards into the water. From then on you don't have to tread water because you just float where you are. The water is supposed to be really good for you skin. Once we got out, we found a pile of the famous Dead Sea mud and put it all over out bodies. The mud is also supposed to be really good for you skin. Then we went back in the sea to rinse the mud off. And from there we went and relaxed by the pool and ate ice cream. Such a hard life.

Then we drove south to go find our youth hostel. Our hostel was located about 45 minutes south through the desert literally up against the border with Jordan. All of the signs were in English, Hebrew, and Thai, because the Moshav ( a type of Israeli town) we were staying in must have employed a lot of Thai workers, which definitely says something about Israeli society. We hung out around the campfire and then went to bed at 9PM, because we were that tired and because....

We woke up at 4AM the next morning. Sunrise was at 6:22AM. Now that's important to know because it was important that we be at the top of Masada to see the sunrise. Masada is an ancient Jewish fortress atop a mountain that was destroyed by the Roman Empire, and is famous because of the battle that took place there and because all of the families ended up committing suicide to save their honor before the Romans got to them. We drove there in a hurry in the pitch black desert night and hiked up all the way to the top before the sun rose. It was absolutely beautiful. Then we explored the ruins atop the mountain and hiked back down to our car.

We then drove a few kilometers north to Ein Gedi, which is a natural spring and series of waterfalls in the desert. It was beautiful, and we got to hop in the water a little bit, but it the narrow path was so full of Israeli school children that it wasn't as much fun as I had remembered it. We then drove to a public beach and went back in the Dead Sea before we drove all the way back to Haifa.

Such a great weekend, and such beautiful scenery. Weekends like that one remind me of why I studied abroad.

By zamorse

Three words. That's all I really need to describe  what my next two weeks here in Israel are going to be like. That dreaded two-week, often a month long period of time in the middle of the semester is never much fun, but it Israel I can see that it is going to be a lot different than back at GW.

Usually I have multiple papers, exams, and projects all due in a hectic two-week period before spring break. And that's true to an extent here in Israel. I have a paper, two exams, a project, and a presentation all due before Passover break starts. Except the projects and presentations are easier and shorter than they would be at GW. Instead of a ten page paper, I have a 5 page paper. Instead of a 15 minute presentation, I have a 5 minute presentation. And instead of your typical blue-book midterm exams, I have a much easier skimmed down version.

Another huge difference between here and GW is the amount of time I have to study for my midterms. Instead of juggling a 20 hour a week internship and being president of a student organization in addition to five classes like I was last year, my classes here are only once a week seminars, and I'm not juggling extracurricular activities like I was at GW. That gives me much more time to get everything I need to get done, but also have lots of time to go to the beach and hang out with my friends.

Midterms here are not as stressful like they are at GW. But that's exactly what it should be like. The point of studying abroad is to study while abroad, obviously, but only a little bit.

The real learning is done outside the classroom.

By zamorse

Once a week on Monday afternoons my friend Maya and I take a bus to a Holocaust Survivors Center in Haifa to volunteer. The Holocaust, or the Shoah in Hebrew, is a sensitive topic in Israel and there are only a few thousand still alive, both in Israel, the United States, and around the world. The State of Israel was founded in 1948 in the aftermath of WWII, and the Holocaust was one of the driving forces in creating the country. Thus, the government of Israel goes to great lengths to protect and care for its Holocaust survivors.

That background sets the state for the kind of experience I have every week. The survivors have an entire community within a neighborhood in Haifa just for them, including a community center, doctors office, apartments, and a dining room. Volunteers like myself come all the time everyday to help care for them. My job every week is to help prepare dinner in the kitchen, and then eat dinner with the survivors at the dinner table.

It's not a very hard job, which allows me to spend a lot of time with them every week. Another great thing about the center is that most of them never learned English and they speak Hebrew really slowly, so it's a great chance for me to get to practice my Hebrew (since most Israelis speak to you in English once they know you're American). Most importantly though, it's a great chance to hear their stories. There aren't that many Holocaust survivors left, and it's really important for me as a Jew, but also as a human being, to hear their stories before they are all gone.


By zamorse

When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, granted the ultra-orthodox Jews living in the new state an exemption from serving in the army so that they could focus on prayer and studying the bible (Torah). At the time, this amounted to only about 400 army-age men each year.

Nowadays, the ultra-orthodox population of Israel has exploded, representing around 10% of the population today. About a quarter of the country's kindergartners are ultra-orthodox.

The fact the the ultra-orthodox don't serve in the army, study at religious seminaries instead of working, and live off welfare from the state has understandably upset the secular majority in the country. To them, they are paying extra taxes and contributing to Israeli society by serving in the army, but it's not fair that the ultra-orthodox don't have to.

Recently, this issue has come to a boiling point in Israeli society. The Knesset (Parliament) passed a law last week mandating that every ultra-orthodox male, except for the exceptionally gifted, will have to serve in the army starting in three years. This would amount to tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox males joining the army every year, compared to the 400 as originally exempted by Ben-Gurion.

This caused an uproar in the ultra-orthodox community, even before the bill was passed. Mass protests erupted around the country in the ultra-orthodox communities. An estimated 500,000 ultra-orthodox Jews literally shut down Jerusalem during one of the protests, for instance. They blocked the main way out of Jerusalem and some friends of mine had trouble getting out of the city back to Haifa for classes the next day.

Now the question becomes, what happens from here on? The ultra-orthodox leaders have called on their community to resist the draft when that day comes. If that happens, tens of thousand of ultra-orthodox males will be considered "draft dodgers" and will go to jail. And then chaos will ensue.

This issue will only become more interesting as the first draft approaches...