By Brooke Gentry
When I first told people I was going to study in Israel, I got mixed reactions. Typical responses ranged from “Isn’t it dangerous over there?” to blank looks and questions of “But, why?” Sure, some people voiced their jealousy because they’d always wanted to go, or they’d been and it was amazing. But, for the most part, my choice to study abroad in Israel was unique amongst my peers.
As a Religious Studies major I wanted to go to the holy land and learn Hebrew so I can read religious texts in their original language and study translation discrepancies. However, I never expected to have such a layered and complex experience.
The semester kicked off in August with Hebrew Ulpan, an intensive language immersion. We spent the first five hours of each weekday learning Hebrew. Even as a beginner, knowing just a bit of the local language does wonders for confidence. Since we had most of the afternoon and evening to do as we pleased, I had plenty of time to put my new Hebrew skills to use.
I also made great friends during this time, going to the beach and exploring Haifa almost after class. Additionally, the madrichim organized trips to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and around Haifa, and my friends and I also did some traveling on our own throughout northern Israel. My trip to Akko, a stunning mixed Arab and Jewish city north of Haifa was a highlight. In the shuk (market), we haggled over coffee cups and knick-knacks, secretly proud of ourselves for becoming well-versed shoppers. Afterwards, we climbed the city walls that survived Napoleon’s siege for a better view and laughed as wind whipped our hair and ruined our pictures.
Selfie in Akko
During the high holidays break between Ulpan and the start of the semester, my parents visited from Atlanta. It was wonderful reuniting with them and acting as a sort of tour guide and translator for their trip. We visited Eilat and the Dead Sea, hiking through the magnificent canyons of Petra to view the unbelievable archaeological feats of an ancient civilization, and cooking and eating a traditional lunch with a Druze family in Daliyat El Carmel. By the end, they were just as taken with Israel as I was and it really eased their worries to see me in my element, and removed any negative preconceptions they had about Israel.
My parents and me in Ein Gedi
After the chagim (high holidays) it was sad to part with my parents, I was ready to begin class and get back into the swing of things. My classes in the University of Haifa International School proved to be intellectually challenging and thought provoking. I’m taking Jewish Spiritual Practices, Arab-Israeli Relations, Contemporary Arab Thought & Culture, and Bible: Soul’s Journey to Completion. Though I have my favorites, I genuinely find myself enjoying the subject matter of every course. Because I have little-to-no background in the material, I can absorb everything freshly and without any bias. Though the academics are rigorous, my workload is very manageable, leaving me a solid amount of free time.
I have used this time to continue to travel both around Israel and abroad. Israel’s convenient proximity to Europe makes flights fairly inexpensive. I’ve been lucky enough to visit friends studying abroad in Prague, Berlin, Dublin, and most recently, Madrid, where we enjoyed the Christmas festivities and decorations in the city center squares.
My friend and me in Madrid
As you can see, studying in Israel has not only been an incredible experience in itself, but also a gateway to other opportunities and explorations. I’m so happy and grateful I chose to study here instead of somewhere in Europe, or other more common abroad destinations. I’ve learned a great deal about the history and culture of Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike. Though I’m sad my experience will come to an end next month, I know it will continue to influence me throughout my life.
A native of Atlanta, GA, Brooke Gentry is a junior majoring in Religious Studies at Colby College finishing up her fall semester abroad at the University of Haifa.