A Birthright trip in 2006 sparked my initial passion for Israel. In July 2010, I returned with a friend for a two-week vacation. After these memorable visits, Israel had become a special place for me. These short trips sparked a desire to spend an extended period of time in Israel in order to immerse myself within the fabric of Israeli life. I was accepted into the MBA program at the University of Texas in December 2010 and decided to leave my job in Chicago and work in Israel until school started in the fall.
Unfortunately, I was hitting roadblocks trying to coordinate the logistics of living and working in Israel. I came across an organization called Career Israel that arranged housing and Ulpan (Hebrew) classes, provided health insurance, and offered me a list of internships that would fit my career goals. In addition, the program included trips throughout the country and a wide range of educational speakers. I put my faith in the program, booked a flight to Israel, and was ready to spend the next five months living in Tel Aviv.
It is said that when you visit Israel, you don’t feel like a tourist, you feel like you are coming home. I was amazed at how generous, warm, and hospitable people were. This was evident during the first few hours after I arrived in Tel Aviv. I went to a store to buy sheets and towels for my apartment and began talking to Rachel, a saleswoman at the store. Like every mother, she instructed me to wash the sheets and towels before using them. When I told her that probably was not going to happen, she asked me to come back tomorrow to pick up my linens. I returned to the store the next day to find my recent purchases washed and neatly folded in a bag. Rachel told me to come by every few weeks so she could check up on me and see what I learned in my Hebrew classes. I’ve never heard of an encounter at Bed Bath & Beyond like that. Rachel was only the first of the many Israeli “mothers” I met who looked after me during my stay in Israel.
I worked for a company called StarTAU, Tel Aviv University’s Entrepreneurship Center as their Foreign Relations Manager. We provided assistance to aspiring entrepreneurs starting their own companies. Because StarTAU itself was a newer company, I was given opportunities to start new initiatives. My projects included establishing links with foreign embassies, investors, and companies in order to raise sponsorship money. I helped organize the first International Business Week conference that brought 20 international students to Israel, where they learned about entrepreneurship and Israeli business culture. I also established the Global Networking Forum, which provided a platform for young professionals in Tel Aviv to network with one another. Our first event had over 150 people from 16 countries. My co-workers welcomed me as part of their team, and I quickly learned that “taklas” (to the point) is a key component of the Israeli business culture. My co-workers became close friends. We socialized after work, and I celebrated holidays with their families.
I lived in an efficiency apartment in central Tel Aviv. After a few months in Tel Aviv I felt like a local. Rarely could I get on a bus, go into a bar or café, or walk down the street without running into someone I knew. In my building there were young people from every corner of the world. Discussing Jewish experiences with new friends from Turkey, Russia, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Australia, Canada and England reinforced my belief in the common bonds Jews throughout the world share. Career Israel arranged trips where we had the opportunity to experience the entire country together. Some of my favorites included Jerusalem, the Negev, Haifa, Ein Gedi, Sderot, and the Golan Heights.
The most unique aspect of my time in Israel was having the opportunity to see Israel as an Israeli. My Israeli friends invited me out with their friends and into their families’ homes. I spent Passover in Haifa, Maimuna and Lag Baomer in Yavne, Shavuot in Hertzilya, and Shabbats in Holon, Netanya, Jerusalem, and Ramat Gan. Being in Israel I saw the sadness of the country on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom Hazikaron (Memorial for Fallen Soldiers and Terror Victims), and the pure joy celebrated on Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day). Despite my Ulpan classes, my Hebrew never became very fluent and the English of many of my friends’ families were only slightly better than my Hebrew. Despite this obstacle, we would figure out ways to communicate. I would play shesh besh (batgamon) and listen to Mizrachi music with the men of the house. (I attended many concerts over the five months. Eyal Golan and Moshe Peretz were two of my favorites.) I would help clear the dishes from the dining room table and give hugs to my friends’ mothers and grandmothers which was always a big hit.
When I left my job in Chicago I could have gone anywhere to live and work prior to starting business school. I chose Israel because not only could I gain valuable international work experience, but I could also explore my heritage. After living in Israel for the past five months, I have not only learned more about Judaism as a religion, but also the unique history of the Jewish people. All of our ancestors continued to practice their beliefs and customs despite hardships because they felt it was important to carry on the Jewish traditions. I heard first hand from families that had lived in Morocco, Iran, and Iraq for generations leaving their homes to escape persecution, and literally walking to Israel. Hearing stories like these, I have become even more passionate in my support of Israel as a safe Jewish state.
My experience in Israel vastly exceeded my expectations. The view walking down Bograshov of the Mediterranean Sea, the night sky and quietness of the Negev, the openness of the Golan, and the rush I felt walking up to the Western Wall are all experiences I will never forget. I can say with full confidence that leaving my job and traveling to the other side of the globe without knowing many people was the best decision I have ever made. Culturally, religiously, socially, and professionally I grew as a person. My experience gave me a firm understanding of the political situation in Israel and the Middle East, and a better grasp of the religious, cultural, and historical aspects of Judaism. Along with all of this, I have made life-long friends and had a blast. I would encourage anyone to jump at the chance of a similar life-changing experience.