Studying Abroad in Israel by Jenna Alcorn

Hello all! As I wrap up my four and a half months studying abroad in Israel, I thought I’d share some of my experiences! I’ve been living, studying and traveling at Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) in the Israel Spring Semester 2018 program.

Living in Israel is a fantastic experience for me as a Jewish teen who has never been here before. I get to live on a campus where I have to manage my time, live with roommates, and of course still focus on school, even if we are traveling two or three times a week.

Of course, a lot is the same here as in the US — everyone is addicted to their phones, there are still McDonald’s and malls everywhere. But, there’s also fresh falafel and shawarma on every corner. Parents give a lot of trust to their children, as we usually see young kids and their friends out by themselves in the evening. One of the biggest differences is the language! Although most people here do speak English, Hebrew is all you hear in the streets. I take a Hebrew class here which has helped me learn the basics for conversation, which is great to use when ordering food or shopping! Another contrast to the US is simply seeing soldiers everywhere. Here in Israel, all citizens are required to serve in the IDF, both women and men. We see teenagers, not even a year older than us, walking through the streets in uniform with M-16 rifles strapped across them. I got a taste of the army life at a mini basic training at Gadna, a base in the Negev.

Shabbat in Israel is a really special thing. Even the secular majority here in Israel values Shabbat to spend time with family and friends. We have been in Jerusalem for Shabbat twice, where life completely halts. We walk in the middle of the street with no fears of cars, and every restaurant and shop is closed for 24 hours. We have also been in Tel Aviv on Shabbat, where about half of the city shuts down. Tel Aviv is the metropolitan center of Israel and a large secular tourist destination, so many of the establishments there don’t abide by traditional religious customs (some places even have bacon cheeseburgers!). We also spent a Shabbat in Tzfat, which is one of the four spiritual cities in Eretz Yisrael. It’s a religious community, even more so than Jerusalem, and Shabbat in Tzfat brings a mysticism over the city. It’s situated on the mountains of the North, so the beauty of the sunset and the winding streets of blue and white are fantastic there. Life completely stands still on Shabbat, not to mention that us girls had to cover every inch of our bodies.

Some of my favorite places we have visited in Israel include the Golan Heights, the Old City of Jerusalem, and the neighborhood Neve Tzedek in Tel Aviv. The Golan is the most northern area of Israel, with stunning mountains and vegetation. We stood feet away from Syrian mine fields and the Lebanese border. We did a beautiful hike leading to a luscious waterfall where we splashed around for a little. The Old City in Jerusalem is just unbelievable, with the cobblestone corridors and so much history right under my feet. We did a 30-minute-long walk through Warrens Shaft, an old water tunnel in Ir David (City of David). It was pitch black inside and so small we had to go single file and duck! Neve Tzedek was one of the first neighborhoods established in Tel Aviv. The old houses and colorful streets have such a different vibe than downtown Tel Aviv. I am a huge lover of street art, which is all over Tel Aviv!

Halfway through our program, right before Holocaust Remembrance Day, we took a week-long trip to Poland. We visited sites where the Jewish community in Poland once flourished, like Krakow, and saw old synagogues and graveyards. We also toured the devastating grounds of Nazi camps, including Auschwitz, Birkenau, Plaszow, and Majdanek. It was a powerful trip for all of us, and being able to march through these places of terror and death with Israeli flags on our backs is one of the most meaningful things I have ever done. It was sad at times, but it was happy at others, as we explored the city centers of a few bustling European cities. For many students it was their first time in Europe, so our night out in Krakow was a blast. The mix of good, bad, sad (and cold) in Poland shaped our experience at AMHSI and has left us with countless memories.

I will be boarding my flight back to JFK Airport in only three weeks, and then back to life in Arlington. I hope to return to Israel soon in my future, either in college or after. Learning about Israel in Sunday school for years all became a reality when I landed here. I feel so connected to this country, its people and my history. It’s so important for Jews to visit Israel if they have the chance, because being here has completely changed my perspective on my religion.

AMHSI has given me a chance to explore Israel while giving me lifelong friends from all over the US. It has prepared me for college life, independent living, and responsibility. If anyone is interested in this program or any that AMHSI has to offer, I am always open to talking about my experiences and showing off all of my amazing photos from the trip.

L’hitreot!

–Jenna Alcorn