It was Sunday at 10 AM. I woke up that morning with a start – why had my alarm gone off so early on a Sunday morning? I quickly remembered that it was the first day of Ulpan, and I knew that having classes on Sunday was something that was going to take a while to get used to. After meeting a new friend in the lobby of my building in K’far Ha’Studentim (the Student Village), we began walking. About 10 seconds later though, I stopped. I looked straight ahead , completely speechless. In front of me was the Jerusalem skyline with the golden Dome of the Rock in the center. With its postcard-esque beauty, my friend and I stood and stared for a few minutes. I could not take my eyes off the beauty and serenity of the sight in front of me. At that moment I could not describe what I was feeling, but I knew that I was home…
Over the next few months, while studying at Masa Israel's Hebrew University, it seemed as if almost everyday I had one of those breathtaking moments. Whether it was praying with hundreds of other women at the Kotel, sitting at a café in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the shuk, sitting on the swing in a park near Emek Refaim, hiking in the hills, or walking in the Old City during a sunset, I never got over the beauty of Jerusalem.
I had been to Israel before. My family had taken trips, and I had participated on three different teen trips in high school and while a student at Syracuse University. My semester abroad in Jerusalem was my seventh time in Israel. And yet, everything seemed so new. On my previous trips we spent a lot of the time on buses, quickly trying to see the whole country in a short amount of time. Having five months in the country, I knew I did not want to rush through anything. I wanted to really see Israel. I wanted to really learn Israel. I wanted to experience Israel culturally, spiritually, and socially. When Israelis or other tourists asked how long I was visiting for, I proudly answered, “I live here.” And for those five months, Israel was my home. I learned that the 19 and the 4aleph buses would get me downtown the quickest. I learned which shuk vendors to go to for which fruits and vegetables. I learned how to converse with people on the street in Hebrew, and I could even help tourists find their ways downtown.
What struck me most about Jerusalem was the passion people had throughout the city. People were passionate about their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People were passionate about their prayer and religious opportunities. People were passionate about understanding the history of the land on which we were standing. The people I met during my time in Israel shared their passion with me. I had no idea then, but nine of the most passionate people I met would become my best friends. We stayed up late talking for hours about these passions – our love for Judaism, our love for Israel’s culture, holiday celebrations, our ulpan classes, an interesting site we had seen that day, and so on. The passions were endless, and yet the things we all were most passionate about were our friendships with each other, the fact that Israel had become our home, and the question of when we would return.
On our last night in Jerusalem, we went to our favorite falafel shop on Mount Scopus. We brought our falafels back to Kfar HaStudentim, and sat on the grass. While we ate, we reflected on the semester that had just passed. We sat there talking and reminiscing for hours. And as the sun set, I looked into the skyline that I had seen on the first day of classes with the Dome of the Rock shining in the center. And just as I had done on that day, again I stopped talking and just looked ahead of me into the beauty of Jerusalem. I knew that because of the beauty and passion I had found in Jerusalem, I would be a different person when I returned to the United States. During the course of five months, I had learned, I had grown, and I had strengthened my love for Israel.
Seven months later, my nine friends and I gathered for a reunion over winter break. Of course, we found a Mediterranean restaurant and practiced our Hebrew with the waiters there. Being together, it was as if we had never been apart. We shared stories about our semesters in college, but mostly reminisced about the great times we had during our Masa Israel semester in Israel. And as I looked around the table, I knew that this image of my friends, just like the skyline of Jerusalem, was one that would stay with me forever. The beauty of Jerusalem had been brought to the U.S. through our memories, our pictures, and the experiences we shared.