While helping female Bedouin teenagers prepare for English college entrance exams at Masa Israel’s Ben Gurion University (BGU) in the Negev in August 2008, I met Nesma. In the coming weeks, I tutored Nesma in English by using Hebrew and Arabic to explain English vocabulary or grammatical constructions. Despite our religious, cultural, and national differences, Nesma and I developed a friendship. As we spoke Hebrew, Arabic, and English, Nesma and I soon learned about each other’s lives and families, mine in New York City and hers in a small Bedouin village near Be’er Sheva.
Nesma and I engaged in the type of dialogue that I have strived to cultivate for my entire life. Growing up, my parents instilled in me a conviction in fostering tolerance and respect amongst peoples. As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, the stories of my grandparents’ hardships in Nazi Europe have always resonated with me. In college at Columbia University in the joint program with the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), I studied different cultures in my major of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, while taking an array of courses in the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, and Jewish history.
When I began thinking about studying abroad in Israel during my sophomore year, I knew that I wanted to be immersed in Israeli culture and society. I decided to go to Ben-Gurion University with the assistance of a Masa Israel Journey grant. At BGU, I lived in the university dorms with Israeli students and participated in student activities on campus. I explored Be’er Sheva and was mesmerized by the unique qualities of the city. One day, my friends and I decided to go to the Bedouin livestock market, where live sheep and goats are sold. The livestock market, which takes place before sunrise, was not the destination of choice for most tourists, or for any Israeli Jews for that matter. As soon as we got there, I could not believe what I saw. Standing around a small bonfire, there were Bedouin men and young boys getting ready to trade their animals. There was not a single woman or non-Bedouin in sight. Although I felt out of place, it was an incredible event that could only have occurred in Be’er Sheva.
I left Be’er Sheva just as the war in Gaza was beginning. While packing, I heard helicopters overhead as injured soldiers were being transported from Gaza to Soroka Hospital, which was next to my dorm. At that moment, I had not yet realized that war had broken out. Two days after I came home, I learned that the neighborhood in Be’er Sheva where I spent Rosh Hashana had been bombed, and a few days later the fence of my dormitory was also hit. The university was closed for more than a week, and my friends who were still in Be’er Sheva had to spend several nights in bomb shelters. It was difficult to separate myself from everything that was going on in Be’er Sheva once I was back in New York. I still felt like Be’er Sheva was my home since I had lived there for five months, and I continued to feel a deep connection with the community there.
I do not believe that I would be where I am today without the semester that I spent at Ben-Gurion University. During my very first week in the Negev, I learned about trust as I took part in a night hike, trekking through the vast desert with the moon as my only guiding light. But more than anything, I learned about myself. I asked a Bedouin man at the Bedouin shuk how much a tapestry cost in Arabic and gave directions to an Israeli woman on the street in Hebrew. I studied the history of the Negev with students from all over America, Mexico, and Europe. After dancing in the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem on Simchat Torah, I sat on a rooftop and heard the Muslim call to prayer while listening to the bells from a nearby church.
After I graduated from Columbia/JTS, I am now interning at OneVoice Movement. OneVoice looks to the future and facilitates dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians to envision a two-state solution. I have no doubt that my experiences at BGU will continue to guide me as I embark on the next stage of my life.