In 2009 I was just beginning my senior year of college at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. Like every student getting ready to graduate, I was thinking ahead to what I was going to do after I received my degree in public relations and marketing. I thought about choosing the more typical path and looking for a job. But I knew in my heart that this was not the path I wanted to take yet. Ever since I was little I had wanted to carve out some time in my life to volunteer, and I wanted that volunteer work to be done in Israel.
Growing up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts I had attended Hebrew School until I was 18. I was also an active member of United Synagogue Youth (USY). One summer I participated in USY on Wheels, a six-and-a-half week cross-country journey with other Jewish young adults. It was this trip, along with Birthright, which made me realize how much I love being in an environment with Jewish peers, learning and sharing new experiences.
Masa Israel’s OTZMA is a ten-month long program incorporating all of these things I was looking for: living in Israel like an Israeli, contributing to the country through volunteer work, making new friends, and learning the Hebrew language. I especially loved the variety of the program. While living in three locations during our year in Israel, we first focus on learning Hebrew and doing some volunteer work, then we fully immerse ourselves in volunteer work, and lastly we have the opportunity to live on a kibbutz or intern inTel Aviv or Jerusalem.
This is how my first month experience looked like. We were living in an absorption center in Ashqelon, Israel with Ethiopian immigrants and other Israeli volunteers who were taking a year off before they enter the army. Although this place was not as nice as the types of places I was used to live in, it became my new home. After all, home is where the heart is, and right now my heart is in Israel.
I started taking Ulpan, an intensive Hebrew course, which is five hours a day, five days a week. In Ashqelon, not everyone can speak English and it was great to be able to practice my Hebrew speaking skills outside of the classroom. I also knew that it was crucial to learn as much as I can for part two of the program when I lived in Rehovot. The more I know, the more I will be able to volunteer and help my community and this has been nothing but motivational when it is time for me to study.
My favorite volunteer opportunity was painting an apartment, which was easily the most disgusting living quarters I have ever seen, with bedrooms containing only a bed, cat hairballs strewn all over the floor and a stench from the bathroom lingering throughout the apartment. But I must admit that as we painted, the place certainly started to improve. That day I learned that a little bit can really go a long way.
When the other Otzmanikim and I decided to take a break, we made our way up to the roof. It was in that moment that I realized that no matter how much paint was splattered on my body and face, or how gross the apartment was, there is always surrounding beauty. The area was not the nicest part of town, but that did not take away from the cool night air that we could feel and the beautiful landscapes that we could see.
There have been many moments like this one in Israel. At times I was very frustrated or quite homesick for certain things. But at the end of every day when I got ready to go to sleep I thought to myself how I am nothing but fortunate to be here and able to dedicate my time to something that I am so passionate about.
On our Sukkot break, I chose to travel to Jordan. There I was able to experience a new culture and see what one of Israel’s neighboring countries is like. I think the best part of the experience for me however, was realizing how much I missed Israel and looked forward to returning to what now truly feels like home.
OTZMA gave me a little slice of the pie of what the rest of my experience will be. If the other slices taste as good as that one, then I cannot wait for the new knowledge, experiences, and memories that will surely have lifelong impacts.