The End of the Greatest Year of My Life in Israel

Dear Reader,

This year I fell in love.

We started our relationship in July of this past year and our love has only flourished since.

I was nervous to tell my parents about my decision to date her at first, but when I did I was met with their overjoyed approval. My grandmother in particular was ecstatic by my choice.

Our relationship got serious quickly, she was simply irresistible. Overtime, we went through a lot together. I saw her flaws, she saw mine. She’s loud, aggressive, sometimes too religious and other-times too secular. We seem to never agree politically. She’s rough, brazen, rude and outspoken. All of which are pieces of why I love her.

I always felt like I could be myself with her. That she knew who I was better than I did.

To be honest, the formative experiences of my life happened with her. She made me into the person that I am today.

As this year comes to an end, I have to say goodbye to her. For now. Our relationship will never disappear, and I’ll see you now and again, but it won’t be the same. I won’t be able to wake up in the morning and know you’re there with me.

I have to grow and move on to bigger and better places, but there will always be a place for you in my heart.

Love you Israel, Me

ps. You can see my many odes to her on TCJewfolk.com

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This is my 36th post that I’ve made during my year long life-affirming, maturity-inducing, carnivalesque, deeply meaningful, friendship-filled roller coaster ride of a journey in Israel.

There’s so much to say. If you need to remember just one thing about my year it’s this:

I met the greatest people. Jews from Australia, South Africa, Sweden, Costa Rica, England, France and more. Arabs, christians, druzim, settlers, palestinians, holocaust survivors, fundamentalists and haredim. These people made my year worthwhile. Talking to them, becoming their friends and sharing some of the most meaningful experiences of my life with them.

Now to some nostalgia…

I arrived in Israel on July 9th, 2013 in order to compete in Taekwondo at the Maccabiah Games in Israel.

The weeks that followed were miraculous. Our Taekwondo team was small and filled with brilliant, caring, interesting people (this theme will reappear). We’d train hard in the morning kicking each other repeatedly in the stomach and sweating buckets at Wingate (Israel’s Olympic Training Center). Tour Israel during the day while having deeply personal conversations about our own beliefs in God and Judaism. At night we’d often go out clubbing together in either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. It didn’t take long until I grew very close to these people. I had an incredible time during the Maccabiah Games, almost none of which had to with the program or the competition itself. The conversations, shenanigans and bonding moments were what made the experience.

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Before I left America for Israel this summer, I flew to Boston to say my final goodbye to my brilliant, generous, barbershop-singing grandfather.

 My Grandpa Ralph had stage 4 lung cancer. I felt deeply conflicted that I would be leaving my family and miss his funeral in order to participate in the Maccabiah Games. I wrote daily blogs from Israel that my parents read to my grandfather and sent him a copy of the prayer for him that I had placed in a crack at the Western Wall.

The night before the competition, I received a call from my sister informing me that my grandfather had passed away in his sleep. I barely slept that night. The next day, I fought and received a silver medal in Taekwondo. The funeral took place while I was competing. It was not an easy thing to handle. I felt so isolated from my family, desperately wanting to be there to comfort them. That night I honored my grandpa’s memory with my Maccabiah teammates in Israel. My teammates were there for me in my time of need and supported me like family. I can never thank them enough for that.

Several weeks later I began my GoEco three week volunteering adventure at the Golan Heights Mountain Eco Lodge. For the first time in my life I was living independently. I began to buy my own food and learned how to cook. There was only one supermarket nearby and every few days I would borrow the lodge’s (non-street legal) quad bike and head down into the city to buy food. My fellow volunteers were Russian, Canadian and British. I became very close to the owners of the lodge who would host magnificent BBQ’s every once in a while and invite the volunteers and a few of their friends.

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I learned how to build during my time at the lodge. I already knew how to lead a project with a group of people and that I had an aesthetic eye, but it was put to the test. We created what can best be described as a sukkah-like structure for the porch. This was a lot of work. First, we had to pick up the tree trunks. Guy (the owner and my host) and I went to a farm to pick the trunks up and on the way bonded hard by singing the lyrics to the rock gods, Led Zeppelin (how he learned English). I would then spend hours using an x-acto knife to peel off the bark of the trunks until it was even on all side. I got blisters on me fingers! From there we were able to move them, secure them with the sledgehammer, place them with a drill and screws, etc.

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We also made my favorite structure, which was the spiderweb like “archway” to the porch. We found cool looking sticks and had a blast constructing this with just a few nails and mainly twisting metal wire to connect them.

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After GoEco I stayed with my Israeli family for a little more than a week. They welcomed me with open arms. Their generosity and hospitality blew me away. I became very close with my sweet, bright 21-year old cousin Noga. She introduced me to her friends and took me out with them, which I’m very grateful for.

I met my entire Israeli family and realized how much they seemed like my family back in Minnesota. Loud, brilliant, full of many strong women, determined, slightly elitist, amazing cooks, passionate conversation at the dinner table and a deep love for babies.

I could never have imagined that I would become so close to them. I stayed this past Shabbat with them in order that I could say goodbye to all of them. Every time I visit, I feel the same way. I’m at home.

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Once I left family I went to Aardvark Israel.

I actually don’t know where to start this.

My experience on Aardvark is beyond words. It was the greatest experience of my life. Yet even that sounds cliche, though it’s true.

I walked into Aardvark as the kid I was all throughout high school. A loner, socially awkward, sheltered, judgmental and naive. I was an outcast of sorts. Aardvark was made up of people like me. There were the rebels, druggies, nerds, jocks, beauties, and recluses. We called ourselves the, “Breakfast Club of Israel”. This fit well since every person in Israel on a different gap year program seems to hate our program. We have a reputation for, “being insane.” Since our Jerusalem apartments are across from a Yeshiva, people say that the “sinners and righteous share the same terf.” Although only a few people will admit it, the main reason we’re hated is because, with little to no rules, Aardvark has the most fun.

My first five months of Aardvark were spent in Florentin, Tel Aviv. Those days were amazing. We were one big dysfunctional family and everyday was a new adventure. My apartment, Levinksi 39, became the Aardvark headquarters for all parties and chillin’ due to it’s amazing balcony (and people). The apartment itself is ratchet and disgusting, but it was beautiful in the fact that it spawned so many friendships for me.

Tel Aviv is the best city in Israel. I did so much in Tel Aviv during my time there. I went to live music, danced at many of the city’s hottest clubs, saw incredible contemporary and modern art, ate at some of the best restaurants, explored the beautiful beaches and fell in love with the city.

It wasn’t the big events, but the small little memories that will stick with me. Running through the streets at midnight with my friends popping the thousands of bubbles flowing from an apartment window, getting stares from those walking by. Finding a hole in the wall bar that seated 5 people and talking to the owner who offered to sit down and describe our personality and deepest selves to us if we wanted. My daily run to the Tel Aviv port, which lights up at night in a way that takes your breath away. Going to Barca, our favorite bar in Tel Aviv and talking to my friends for hours while sipping a beer and eating way too many olives and chickpeas. Giving my parents an in-depth tour of my favorite spots in Florentin. Free-style rapping with my friend for hours on the Levinski (my apt) rooftop, crafting parables and philosophies off the top of our heads. The unforgettable Simchas Torah experience I had in Tzfat where I learned a great deal about fundamentalism and religious extremism (you can read about it here and here). When we had a boys only potluck at my friends apartment, destroyed the delicious pasta dish in minutes, pledged to make it a weekly tradition and never had another one. Doing laundry in a laundromat at 2 am and falling asleep on my best friend. Running with a massive Aardvark crew to the police station at 4 am to retrieve the girls’ phones, stolen from a club earlier that night. The amazing hiking trip in Tzfat with two very close friends of mine, where we studied Kabbalah, made a campfire, freestyled and slept outside under the stars in the mystical mountains (You can read about that trip here). Having an amazing game of “Go Fish” in my apartment elevator…because we could. Being the DJ for most of our parties, and thus learning everyone’s favorite music. Roasting smores from our massive bonfire on the beach made up of wood that we found in the dumpster. Cooking delicious, massive meals for Thanksgivukah and the many phenomenal Aardvark potlucks. Oh and those nights we don’t remember as well : )

I can’t continue because my chest aches when I remember all these wonderful times. I miss it. We spent another semester in Jerusalem, but nothing will ever to compare to the times we had in Tel Aviv.

I couldn’t fit all of my favorite photos from Aardvark on this post so here is a slideshow I made that will give you taste of my Aardvark experience. Please take the time to watch it.

During those 5 months in Tel Aviv I had two volunteer experiences. The first of which was my 6 week service as a volunteer medic on an ambulance with Magen David Adom. There are certain patients that I had on the ambulance that change who I am forever. I took a holocaust survivor to the hospital and talked to her for a long time in the ambulance about her experiences and the importance of Israel, a week later I had the pleasure of taking her back home from the hospital and got to meet her family. There was the case of the foreign worker with a large gash wound on his arm where I could only communicate with him through Google Translate (god bless Larry Page and Sergey Brin). The woman in a car accident where her car flipped completely over and the medic and I calmed her down. I will never forget how her bloody arms shook against her body in fear. The most traumatic experience that I had on Magen David Adom was when I performed CPR on a 4 month old Tuberculosis patient. I gave the baby oxygen with an air pump (2 breaths ever 15 seconds) hooked up to an air canister. After working on the patient for more than an hour, the ER personnel were not able to revive her. I felt responsible and it was very hard for me to deal with. My Aardvark family helped get me through it and I’m very grateful for that.

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I also had an internship with PeacePlayers Middle East. An organization that uses basketball to unite Jews, Arabs and Palestinian children by having them play together. Since I created a video for them, I’ll let the video do the talking.

After five months in Tel Aviv I moved to the capital city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a very different city with a completely difference aesthetic and environment. There were pieces of Jerusalem that I loved such as the endlessly fascinating and eager to talk religious intellectuals. My first week in Jerusalem I was headed to party on Ben Yehuda (not a great place to party btw) when I realized that I was too tired and got off the bus to head back to my apartment. On the return bus back to my apartment I noticed a man studying Torah and asked him what he was studying and why. We got into a deep conversation about the value of Judaism and whether the values of the Torah can fit in the 21st century. At the end of the bus ride he invited me to a few lectures at his Yeshiva, I never went to the lectures but our conversation stuck with me nonetheless.

I also love Jerusalem’s shabbats. Being able to walk through the streets and see no cars (besides the Arab taxi drivers). The old train station is packed with young people with babies and children biking around. The weather always seems to be beautiful on Shabbat.

However I also felt very claustrophobic in Jerusalem, there was very little to do and the city is packed with tourists rather than local Israelis. Too often have I been confronted with sexist, homophobic or bigoted religious people in Jerusalem, whereas in Tel Aviv pretty much everyone is a secular, gay, liberal, intellectual with a hipster clothing style.

You can read my post about Jerusalem shabbats here.

I still had some great times in Jerusalem. One of the wisest decisions I made while in Jerusalem was to search for an internship that would prepare me for my intended career in Biomedical/Biotechnology. I tried to use my family’s contacts back in home to help me, I tried to have my program set up an internship, but to no success. Finally, I decided to try cold calling. I called the first startup company on my list, Marx Biotechnology, a biotech startup that is developing the first ever molecular diagnostic for the early detection of Graft versus Host Disease (GVHD). Within five minutes he agreed to an interview and within two weeks I had the internship. I learned a great deal from my work with them. They fully immersed me in the ins and outs of the science behind their product and I learned how a startup company works. I created a video that they could show to potential investors. Feel free to watch it below.

A few months later I began Marva, a two month Israeli Defense Force army program that simulates basic training. I don’t need to summarize all the amazing things I experienced on Marva because you can read about it here.

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Let me just include a few things that I didn’t mention in that post.

What does Marva mean to me?

It’s going to Kabbalat Shabbat services after a long week of crappy food and no sleep and belting the prayers with all of your heart as you clap and dance with 25 of your friends. It’s that moment when you hear everyone singing “Lecha Dodi” and realize that the person to your right is singing with a South African accent, the 4 people behind you have French accents and the guy screaming his heart out in front has an English accent. They’re all Jews and they all know the same prayers that you do.

Marva is barely sleeping at night, eating the same awful food (canned tuna, canned olives, cucumbers, tomatoes and white bread) for breakfast, lunch and dinner for three days in the desert and not letting it phase you when they tell you to army crawl through nails and glass.

It’s the feeling you get when you step off the bus at the Tel Aviv central bus station after two weeks stuck in that Sde Boker army base and you can hear civilization and feel the freedom rush through your body.

I love Marva. And again (repeating theme), I LOVE the people that I met. A diverse, fascinating, fun group of people that I was blessed to get to know. After Marva, a friend of mine was overjoyed to have me stay in his apartment with a bunch of my other Marva friends. We bonded and all of us hit up Tel Aviv several times together, I’m so lucky to have found such cool people.

So…What’s next for me?

Well, on June 3rd I will be back in the Twin Cities.

I’ll (hopefully) start an internship soon after.

Over the summer I want to reconnect with my family. Bond with my nieces (Liat, Lisa and my BFF Maya) who I want to get to know better.

After the summer, I will start a 5 year dual degree program at Brandeis and Columbia University studying business and engineering.

Off to another adventure.

An adventure that I will face as a new man. I’ve made mistakes this year, but those little slip-ups helped me grow. I’ve learned what kind of person I want to be and the kind of friends that I want to have. I’m proud to be who I am with all my strengths and weaknesses, and I couldn’t have achieved any of this without the phenomenal friends that I’ve made throughout this year. I owe it to them.

I’ve never really had to miss people, outside of my family. I didn’t get emotional during my high school graduation, because I wasn’t really leaving anyone. Now, I’m leaving my second family. I’ve found best friends who I love dearly and will miss terribly. Luckily, many of them will leave close to me at Brandeis/Columbia. Sending lots of love to all you out there who’ve made my year so amazing.

To my family back home. You’ve heard it before so I do the schpiel quickly…but I love you, you’re the best, you’re support was absolutely essential for my growth and survival this year and I don’t know what I’d do without you.

Thank you for reading this post, and any others you may or may not have read during my year. I got great feedback from many people on my posts, and I’m so glad that I blogged for TCJewfolk. So many of my remarkable experiences have been immortalized online, thank god not all of them : )

I have only one request for you. Yes, I’m talking to you. The reader. Promise yourself that you will go to Israel sometime in the next 1-2 years. If that means going on Birthright and seeing the sights that’s good. I would prefer however that you go to Israel and enrich yourself in it’s culture. Give yourself the time to feel like you’re not just a tourist. Give Israel the chance to take you under its wing.

Personally, I think a love for the state of Israel is one of, if not, the most important pieces of being Jewish.

No matter what your level of faith is, believe in the state of Israel and the vitality of the Jewish people. Nothing should ever break your faith in either of them.

Find a way to visit the beautiful land where every citizen fights for you. There are 18-year-olds thousands of miles away from your cozy home who are battling against an threat that threatens your life. The people in Israel are one big dysfunctional family, and they’re your family because it’s your land as much as it is theirs. You might see them act  “rude” on the streets, but then invite you to Shabbat dinner afterwards.

Come here and fall in love with the people who will invite you into their home in a heartbeat and ask if you know their cousin in New York/California/Massachusetts. Fall in love with the cat infestation and the Jerusalem syndrome/homeless men having a full conversation with God as they walk. Fall in love with the humus, only to get sick of it after eating it during every meal. Fall in love with the Jerusalem stone, the Tel Aviv skyscrapers, the beaches in Eilat or the mountains in the Golan Heights. Fall in love with the Shabbat dead zone and the fact the whole country stops at every major Jewish holiday. Fall in love with the language of Hebrew, as long you can a bit of spit flying out of their mouths. Fall in love with shuk where you can buy every kind of food you’d ever want at cheap prices if you know how to haggle. Fall in love with the people who will tell you their views on whatever matter they see please, whether or not you’ve asked for their opinion. Fall in love with the fact that you’ll be keeping kosher all the time without realizing it. Most importantly, step onto a soil that has your soul carved into it and realize that this is the only place on earth that whispers to you when you arrive. It says two words very quietly in a strong Israeli accent, “Welcome Home.”