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college student talks about his road from NY to Israel and back in Gush Etzion in Israel as a precursor to NYU in New York, and how different or similar they are. Interview by SIMON “SHIMI” ZVI SAVITT Why should a Jewish post-high school student go to Israel for a year? First of all, Israel is
the Jewish homeland, and is also where the majority of the known Jews in the world live. A person can really see themselves within the framework of the Jewish world more clearly from being in Israel, where Jewish society is not just a small part of the country, but is the entire country, and all of the headlines in the newspapers. Also, it is very thrilling to be where you learnt about your entire life, to see the red sea from Eilat where Moshe and Bnei Yisroel crossed the Yam Suf, to be at Maharaht Hamachpelah where the three avot are buried, and especially to be in Yerushalayim at the Har Habayit. And finally, there are many resources for learning about Jewish studies that you can find in Israel and nowhere else.
Were you at all worried about traveling to Israel because the country’s security and safety is being threatened? Yes, especially when I first arrived there. It took me quite a few months to get
used to riding the bus, and to go out at night, and the thing that surprised me most was to see that there were so many guns. After a little while though, you learn how effective the IDF is, and how safe they can keep you, and you begin to realize that even though there are so many people threatening you everyday you can’t spend your entire life hiding from them. Even the guns started to become more commonplace to see. On the other hand, there was a time when I felt uncomfortable about somebody who had walked onto the bus that I was riding on, and I got off. I guess the mentality is, that were not going to let the terrorists ruin our everyday lives, but at the same time, we have to be cautious.
Please describe the bus experience in more detail. I was going to exchange cell phones because
mine was broken, and I found myself riding a bus line that I had never been on before. I also didn’t know exactly where I was going. I saw a man get on the bus, and he looked like he had something sticking out of his shirt. He also had a very strange look on his face. I was very nervous, I still didn’t want to get off the bus because I noticed no one around me was nervous, but in the end I decided to get off anyway and follow the rule I stated before. Nothing ended up happening, and it turns that the stop I got off at was the one that I needed to get off at in the first place so it turned out well.
Israel is home to many tourist attractions, which did you visit? First and foremost, I visited the
Kotel many times. I also went hiking specifically in the Jilaboun, and Nachal Yehudia. I also visited Eilat, and went up to the beach in Chaifa, and on previous trips I’ve been to the Lebanese border, I visited the King David Hotel, I visited Maharat Hamachpelah, I went rafting In the Yarden, the Jordan River, and many others. I feel like everywhere you go in the country has a certain aspect of being an attraction, whether it be Ben Yehudah street, or the Arab Shuk, the country is so special that everywhere is somewhere memorable.
When did the Israeli-Palestinian conflict become most real to you? This happened 2 and a
half years ago, when my father came to visit me after the program was over, I had wanted to see Kever Rachel, and my father decided that we were going to go. When we got to the border of Beit Lechem, an Israeli soldier told us that we were not allowed to go without being in a special bulletproof bus that had already left for the day. We weren’t going to have another opportunity to visit, so my father and I, on the advice of our cab driver, decided to go with an Arab driver on a tour that was said to include Kever Rachel. We were told to pretend we were Christian, and to go in again with that alibi. Looking back, and even at the time, it was not a good idea, but thankfully
everything worked out in the end. We had a Palestinian authority official as a tour guide, and there were Palestinian authority gunmen patrolling the area. We of course did not wear yarmulkes, and the tour ended up bringing us to the Church of the Nativity instead of Kever Rachel. We could not visit Kevar Rachel from the Arab side because they had built a protection wall to keep people from shooting at the Jews praying at Kever Rachel. That hour and a half was one of the scariest of my life, seeing the desolation on both sides because of the ongoing war was very powerful. I consider that, the most dangerous situation that I was ever in and I will never forget it.
What was it like having experienced Israel and then coming back to New York? Did you learn anything from your experience? On the way back from Israel, I also took a small detour to
Europe. And from the entire experience, I learned that the world is a lot bigger than just New York City. I learned that there is no such thing as one Israel. While there is quite a bit of falafel, hummus, camels and sand, I have learnt that there are so many different communities, that it is impossible to define Israeli culture and society with one illustration. I learnt to view my place as part of a people and as part of the world and as part of history instead of just here and now.
What are the different kinds of people you can meet in Israel? Just like in America, people
have labels. You have first and foremost, the Jews and the Arabs. But there are different kinds of Jews, and different kinds of Arabs. Beginning with the Arabs, you have the Israeli Arabs who are more loyal to the country; you have the Druze, a different religion from Islam, who serve in the Israeli army; you have the Bedouins tribes who are in the desert, and you also have the Palestinians. There are many more different sects, but I came in contact with more Jews. One of the big divisions is between the Chilonim, the secular Jews, and the Dati’im, the religious Jews. Within the religious Jews, you have the Dati’leumi, the religious Zionists, and the Haredim, the ultra orthodox community, which tends to be less Zionistic. Zionism in this case, refers to belief in this state, not just living in Israel. You have the Ashkenzim from Europe, the Sephardim from the Arab countries, and you have the Mafdal, who are the Zionistic Haredim. There are those who go to the army, and those who stay in yeshiva. There are those who work on the Sabbath, and those who don’t. There are Jews from Russia, and even from Ethiopia. There are also a lot of Russians who are not Jewish but live in Israel anyway. There is also a huge divide between the Sabras, which are the native born Israelis, and the Olim-Chadashim, the immigrants. Everyone brings a little bit of their family traditions to the culture of Israel, and it is reflected in the food, the music, the literature, the art, the politics, and the character of the nation. However, at the same time to be walking on the street and know that everyone around you is Jewish, you have a feeling of being home. And with all of their differences, you can feel that these people treat their counterparts as brothers. Albeit, brothers that they like less.
How would a person benefit from a visit to Israel? First of all, to come and live in the place that
appears in the newspapers everyday, and that so many people say so many different things about, it’s healthy to get your own perspective from being there as opposed to just reading about it. A Jewish person can gain a stronger identity as a member of the nation of Israel and the Jews. Hashem designated it for us, and it feels like home to be there. Also it can change ones perspective on America or wherever they come from; to hear other people’s opinions about it and to view their own country from another country. Israel has been the center of the action for thousands of years. And every step one takes in the Israel is following in the footsteps of hundreds of people we learn about in history class or in Tanach class. The same road could be where Avraham traveled, where David Hamelech fought, where some of the battles of Chanukah happened, where crusaders came in, or where the Israeli fought to keep the nation alive. It is steeped in so much history, and to be there, you become part of that history, and can feel a connection to those who came before you and those who will come after you.
Do you believe there will ever be peace? I believe, that one of the messages that we can learn from
Israel is that even though there are so many different kinds of people, with so many different opinions of what is right and wrong, the nation has managed to survive for thousands of years and that the country has survived so many wars that eventually, people will learn to set their petty differences aside, and try to live as people helping each other. So yes, I do believe there will be peace. And I pray that it will happen soon.
Designed By Simon Savitt of Ramaz Middle School - ישיבת רמז
For more information please visit Ramaz’s website at: Ramaz.org
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