While growing up in the Jewish community in Kansas City, I had the opportunity to visit Israel a few times. But it was not until I visited Israel with my family after my freshman year at the Joint Program with the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University that Jerusalem—a frequent stop on past trips—really began to appeal to me. I knew I needed to return for a longer period of time and with majors in International Relations and Bible Studies, the city was the perfect backdrop to my academic focus.
In the second semester of my junior year, I left Manhattan and studied abroad at the Masa Israel-accredited Rothberg International School’s Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At the university, which is located in the heart of Israel, I enrolled in courses that directly related to my major and placed me in the thick of their historical settings. These courses also allowed me to explore my majors from new angles; for example, my Ancient Mesopotamia class combined biblical, mythical and religious studies, and archeology.
While my courses took me back in history, my day-to-day life was immersed in modern-day Israel. On afternoons, I would go to Ben Yehuda Street or the shuk and practice my Hebrew with Israelis. On day trips, I was able to travel all around Israel.
One memorable trip was the three-day-long Sea-to-Sea trek in which 50 other students and I hiked the well-known trail from the Mediterranean Sea to the Kinneret. Passing long and arduous days hiking through the tall grass with the hot sun beaming on our heads was thrilling. Despite the intense heat and my sore muscles, I enjoyed being able to experience an Israeli youth rite of passage. Along the way, we passed several groups of Israeli Scouts and exchanged the thumbs-up sign, making us feel like we were really part of the larger Israeli community.
When we reached our resting point, we built a bonfire and roasted marshmallows, while a fellow classmate played the bagpipes. Relaxing in this open area in nature and listening to the music echo off the trees, my peers and I smiled sleepily and felt the impact of the day sink into our bodies. When we finally reached the Kinneret at the end of the third day, we ran into the water, relieved to have completed the hike but sad that we were closer to the end of our Masa program when we would leave Israel.
In contrast to my previous trips to Israel, this study abroad experience allowed me to see the real Israel and become a part of it. Israel was no longer just a series of tourist attractions and I was not only a short-term visitor, racing to buy souvenirs wherever I went. Rather, Israel became my home during that semester, and I felt a connection to Jews everywhere who consider Israel their homeland. During that winter and spring, I began thinking in Hebrew, took part in holiday celebrations with my Israeli peers and experienced the ebb and flow of daily life. I felt a sense of comfort and belonging in Israel.
I returned to campus not only with a more grounded understanding of my studies, but with a new and more authentic love for Israel. I recommend that other Jewish young adults study abroad in Israel and experience.