Goodbye and Good Luck

18653797506_1e52077c96_zMy goals for my study abroad experience in Israel were to practice Arabic, gain comfort living in the middle east, and to better understand the conflict and problems facing the region and country. In just under 3 months, I think I accomplished all of these to some extent, as well as learned new perspectives on religion and politics, and experienced entirely new and delicious foods. In addition, I somewhat unexpectedly gained insight into what it means to be Jewish, discovering that the word Jewish takes on numerous meanings and connotations in Israel.

I was hoping to come home to the United States with ideas of how to resolve the problems I witnessed in Israel and the Middle East. This is something that I did not accomplish. It has become even harder for me to express my opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as my experiences have blurred what I perceive as fair and just in this conflict. This is a pattern I have started to recognize from studying politics and conflict of the Middle East: just because I learn more doesn’t mean solutions present themselves. Often, the more I learn, the more complex each problem seems to be and the harder it seems to find a solution that will bring lasting and comfortable peace.

18307206392_16f4cb8cb3_zBut this takes the form of a different lesson from studying abroad – my time in Israel was just a fraction of the time I plan to spend abroad in my life, because more experiences abroad will continue to sharpen my views on my own country and about the conflicts that I hope to help solve someday. Even though, right now, solutions seem just as far away as they ever have. Being outside of the United States, regardless where, is invaluable for someone like me who wants to help facilitate positive change in the world. In Israel I learned Hebrew and Arabic and talked to people living on both sides of a 9 foot security fence. I may not have learned how to solve the world’s problems, but I learned to understand why Israel presents itself the way it does to the international community, and what kind of psychological impact living in an insecure territory has on individuals. I floated around in the Dead Sea and sat through hours of Shabbat dinners. I learned how to rescue people from earthquake rubble and got to experience the old city of Jerusalem at night. Israel provided me a beautiful, fascinating home for 3 months, and I am grateful to all of the people who made that possible.

Thanks for reading. Good luck to all of you on your adventures.

Silently Seeking Arabic

Throughout this trip I have been silently seeking Arabic language everywhere we go. At Northwestern I studied the language for 2 and a half years, and I have loved it ever since starting to draw the alphabet. I joke that I would give up my English skills if I could trade them in for Arabic fluency. The amount of Arabic in Tel Aviv is limited. I overhear it in some places, and in many places I have seen the script, but I was pleased to hear it prevalently in our trips to East Jerusalem, the Arab Sector, and especially the West Bank. I’m not sure how much I was listening to our hosts speak during the clinic visits because I was always looking out for Arabic signs to read. I didn’t know many of the words, as they were mostly medical terms, but it was comforting for me to at least be able to read the letters.  I was in a state of near euphoria when one of our hosts spoke to us only in modern standard Arabic. My classmates relied on translations from our professor but I eagerly listened to our host, nodding along when I understood full sentences. It was heaven for me.

Coming to Israel, I was told I would get a chance to practice my language, but it has been much more limited than I expected. Every sign is in Hebrew and everyone speaks Hebrew and English, and although I have definitely gained some Hebrew knowledge I am constantly listening in to conversations in order to spot familiar Arabic words. In order to make myself feel like I’m not missing out too much, I convince myself that being surrounded by Hebrew has become good for my Arabic. Certain sounds and grammar structures have revived my memory of Arabic and actually improved some of my pronunciation, surprisingly. Hearing how certain letters, specifically ‘h’ and ‘d’ sound in Hebrew has helped me distinguish the sounds in Arabic and made me a lot better at recognizing the differences between these related languages. My ears have become accustomed to distinguishing these sounds and understanding simple conversations in Hebrew in addition to Arabic. All of the listening practice has ultimately helped my own pronunciation, which in turn makes me much more willing to practice my Arabic out loud (a very scary concept even after almost 3 years of the language). I recognize I am not in an Arab country, and I knew from the start my practice would be limited, but the feeling of comfort I get when we enter an Arab town, Palestinian village, or even just overhear our bus driver say ‘ahlan wa sahlan’ has been gratifying, and it has curbed my craving for Arabic at least for a short time.

Note the Arabic and Hebrew scripts. Photo credit Jessica Hoffen

Note the Arabic and Hebrew scripts. Photo credit Jessica Hoffen

“Welcome To Phalesteen”

We got off the bus, and stood a bit nervously in front of the large red sign that read ‘Palestinian Authority Territory’ as three of the border guards, Isreali Defense Force reservists, walked over. They wore giant smiles with their AK-47s. They came over to us speaking in Hebrew at first, and then switching to English when they realized we were Americans. They were happy to see us, welcoming our company at the check point to the West Bank where they spend 5 straight days at a time checking IDs to make sure no Israelis pass the fence. This gate is the first of a series of three stops before reaching the West Bank, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and not the Israeli government. We were to go no farther this day, except to stop by the guard post for what turned out to be quite a pleasant time. The guards asked if we wanted a picture and we snapped a few group shots with them in front of the giant red sign. The two other guards waved us over to their post and the 6 of us approached nervously, our genial bus driver leading the charge. The soldiers offered us coffee and asked us where we were from, speaking effortless English, their faces still bright with excitement. One guard continued to wave cars through the gate, while the other four stood with us. My classmates and I exchanged skeptical looks, but the guards were overflowing with hospitality and we couldn’t help but fall in line with their conversation. We asked about their work and what they do when not on guard, and they showed us the tiny tower they are made to sleep in. I was shocked by how willing they were to share the details of their jobs and lives.

photo credit Jessica Hoffen

photo credit Jessica Hoffen


After our coffee break at the border post, we continued on our field trip of the Arab Sector in Israel. This day was much different than any other day we have spent in Israel as we were interacting with an entirely different population than the one we are used to in Tel Aviv. We visited clinics to talk about the health challenges facing the Arab population of Israel and had a short lecture at the giant security ‘fence’ that divides Israel from the West Bank. Here we were greeted once more with hospitality by a man screaming ‘Welcome to Phalasteen!’ through a loud speaker. It was this trip, standing at the border between PA and Israeli territory, that the enormity of the situation here became visible to me. The problem of drawing borders, dividing populations, integrating cultures, and appeasing peoples with very different interests seems challenging from within the United States, and even more so within the territory itself. So many more dimensions have been revealed to me since I arrived in Israel, and political and ethical concerns are no longer the only angles for me to look at the problem. This country is more complicated than I had previously envisioned, and although reality is frustrating, I feel as though my goal of acquiring a first hand account of the situation here is being realized.

The Art of Internet Cafes

Photo Credit Jessica Hoffen

Photo Credit Jessica Hoffen

Class finishes at 12:00 three days a week, which leaves free afternoons the majority of the week for my classmates and I. As Northwestern students, this is unusual and uncomfortable. In Israel, we have a life style without work-study jobs, student groups, sports clubs, and general all-day commitments. Accustomed to settling into our homework around 9pm in Evanston after a full day, we have transitioned into commuting to an internet café in Tel Aviv in the early afternoons to address our upcoming readings. Free time has never been so intimidating. We have an entire country to explore for 10 weeks, and although we do many excursions and travels through class trips, there is still plenty to see in such a short time. Guidebook in hand, the six of us have compiled lists of activities, neighborhoods, but most importantly internet cafes to visit during our stay. These cafes help us settle into the daily flow of cosmopolitan Tel Aviv. Sipping chai lattes on colder days and lemonade during warmer weather, we have taken to seeing the city through the most relaxed spots imaginable. Sometimes we bring roommates along, other times I manage my own solo excursions, always trying out a new neighborhood or street corner, popping open my laptop and sinking into the atmosphere.

In comparison to our busy lives back home, this semester feels more like a vacation than our actual summers. The weather is always sunny and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, our classwork is manageable, and the time we have to travel outside of Tel Aviv is liberal. Getting out of my apartment, even if it is just down the street at the very convenient Betta Café, saves me from evanescent afternoons watching Netflix trapped in my beds – the affliction that seems to hit me when I finally encounter a free afternoon in Evanston. Sitting in a café may seem like a waste of an afternoon when our time in this country is limited, but I think there is something valuable in delving into the culture of a place; absorbing your surrounds, chatting with strangers, and making oneself familiar with the places that you may not be able to visit again. This may sound lazy. Sometimes I think should I be doing more? But there is time for that as well. Weekends spent in Jerusalem experiencing a very different side of Israel have already hit the books, as well as volunteering events, beach days, holiday celebrations, Shabbat dinner with strangers, and school hosted socials and guest speakers. This list is leisurely. The bottom line is, our free time allows us to encounter many sides of Israel and the culture that permeates it, and I am learning to fill my free time with experiences that are helping me get to know a country that I have only read about previously. Every firsthand experience builds upon my understanding, even the ones spent nestled in a cozy café.

Jerusalem: Rooftops at Night

the cat

As if we were in a romantic movie, the three of us strolled up the metal staircase late in the evening to the four corners rooftop, an intersection point between the four quarters of the old city of Jerusalem: Armenian, Christian, Arab, and Jewish. Thanks to Becca’s impeccable sense of direction, we had just wandered from the Western Wall, through the Arab quarter, and around the entire city wall back to our hostel in the heart of the Jewish quarter. Just before turning in for the night, we turned a few more corners and ended up here on the roof, looking out over the city of Jerusalem. It is beautiful at night. Which is no surprise. In the yellow light of the street lamps and the green glow of Al Aqsa mosque, even the cats feel the comforting mood, rubbing up next to you to cuddle.

We came to Jerusalem that morning with our professors and a list of academic sites to visit on our first trip to the holy city. Our 10 am welcome was the sound of sirens. They went off as we were passing through security to get into Yad Vashem, the destination of a memorial service on Holocaust Remembrance Day. It took nearly 30 minutes to pass from one post to the next, from metal detectors, palm swipes, and brief questioning. The siren sounded for 2 minutes, the beeps and alarms of the security falling silent as everyone stood in place, perfectly still. No words and no motion. The moment is meant to commemorate the Holocaust, and is one of many traditions meant to remember the tragic events in history that played such a huge role in the creation of Israel.

Moments like these also reminded us of the unique city we were visiting: nowhere else in the world were the crowds and even street cars frozen. A few of us decided to spend the night in the city instead of returning home in order to witness the city in the nighttime. We were lucky enough to be introduced into a wonderfully homey women’s hostel in the Jewish quarter. In addition, it was alarmingly well kept for the nightly rate of 20 Shekels, or $5, per night.

Jerusalem is world-renowned. Everyone knows it for its holiness in three separate faiths, but this does not tell you much about what it is actually like on the inside. With each step on the pavement of the old city you transcend through countless, endless boundaries between faiths and cultures, always ending up where you didn’t intend and constantly walking in circles. A step to the left in some areas brings you under Armenian territory, while a step to the right puts you on Coptic soil. It isn’t until nightfall, while we wander the corridors, passing from one quarter to the next, our eyes and ears adjusting to different languages every few minutes, that we start to unravel the tangle of contestation that we had learned and encountered all day. There is no one city, no one Jerusalem. There are a dozen Jerusalems, each belonging to a different culture, language, dress. Only at night, with some mental digestion, was I able to feel the layers of the city settle into quiet, and be enveloped by the countless cultures without feeling suffocated and yanked in various contradictory directions. By the time I leave Israel, I want my brain to be able to adjust to the these layers: to hear Arabic, see Jewish Orthodox outfits, and stand below towering churches and feel as though the layers of this country are not chaos, but a melting pot that brings more richness than it does cruelty and conflict.

view from the rooftop

view from the rooftop

My First Passover Seder: Is this the bitter vegetable?

I am not Jewish. For many, my choice to live in Israel, a Jewish country, provokes statements like ‘it must be so weird!’. At no other time is this statement more true than at Passover Seder. If I belonged to an organized religion I may have found some similarity in the traditions and processes each person performs at the dinner table on this Jewish holiday, but I am not religious and have not experienced anything like the public Seder three of my colleagues and I attended.

The four hour ceremony began with singing and prayer as we walked into the Synagogue and were greeted by gracious hosts and children dancing. We took our seats near the group of adults singing and exchanged awkward and curious glances amongst ourselves and at the plate of Passover traditions sitting at the dinner table between us. In between dipping symbolic vegetables into salt water, debating which vegetable came next (is this the bitter vegetable?) and nibbling on matzoh, I listened to quickly spoken Hebrew prayers, understanding very little and failing for the most part to follow along in my English book. My three companions and I were given two 14-year-old translators, and although they gave up on translating early on I thoroughly enjoyed their jokes and imitative dance moves throughout the evening.

photo credit to Jing Lee

photo credit to Jing Lee

photo credit to Jing Lee

photo credit to Jing Lee








Grateful to be included in this holiday and in the nearby community, we partook in each step as diligently as we could, and tasted each meal when it came time to eat. Some of us enjoyed the gefilte fish, others did not, and we all had our opinions about the ceremonial wine (is this just sugar water?). But I know I concluded the evening with  much more appreciation for the Jewish community and the traditions they partake in each year on Passover and each Friday night.

Why I love packing



I’ve always liked packing because fitting everything you need into one giant bag is not only an incredible accomplishment, but it is freeing. I’ve managed to live in a closet-sized room for a year, and now I will live out of a bag comparable in weight and size to a mid-sized dog, and comfortably. I feel light, prepared, and very ready to board my plane to Israel, where I will live for the next 3 months.

My name is Alli and I’m a Junior political science and international studies major at Northwestern. I have been planning to study abroad since before I came to college, desperately hoping that at least one Middle Eastern country would be safe enough for me to travel to. It has always been up in the air, but this Spring I am very excited to be studying abroad in Israel, one of the most contested and interesting small countries in the world. While I am abroad, I am hoping to work on my Arabic and Hebrew skills, spend some much needed time at the beach, but more importantly start off  form a first hand account of the politics and society of a country I have studied for years. To me, the Middle East is the most fascinating place in the world, and I am very excited to bring myself, and my giant bag, into the region for the first time.

You will be hearing from me soon! Wish me luck.

Weaving Through the Fabric of Israel

Israel is a region of intersection. As Northwestern students made connections at clinics, often overlooked corners of Tel Aviv and religious landmarks, they saw health, community and spirituality weave together.

Bnei Brak

“The trip to the Tipat Halav clinic offered an interesting look into the specific ways that the Israeli government helps with infant wellness and the complicated issues involved. One nurse told us a story about a patient who refused to be seen by anyone who was not an Orthodox Jew, which creates difficult situations because there are so few practicing medicine and those that do ten toward hospitals. The conversation with the Orthodox woman was particularly interesting simply because we got to hear directly from a member of the community.” – James

“The presentations were excellent, [and] touring the facility and getting to sit in on appointments and classes was a fantastic opportunity. Rather than looking at Haredim from a political standpoint, we learned what being Orthodox means, and I know that really helped me better understand them academically as a minority, as well as on a personal level.” – Rebecca

Central Station

“We got to see an area of Tel Aviv that we might have otherwise entirely bypassed. The manager of the Levinsky Clinic was very accommodating, particularly on the often misunderstood and ignored sex worker population and what it means from a public health perspective. This trip was outside the scope of some of the more prosperous areas of Israel and a much more realistic view of some of the most pressing problems among the groups of Israeli society that truly struggle with health care disparities.” – James

“…After the sexual health clinic, we visited the refugee clinic. The staff explained their role in the community and how their staff is made up mostly of volunteers. They discussed the challenges they face when serving refugees as they must build a lot of trust and credibility in this population. We heard from an Eritrean refugee who described his story. It was difficult to understand his English, but I could tell from his tone and body language that the clinic had a large impact in his life which led to him serving there for the last five years.” – Mike

Christianity in the Sea of Galilee, Tiberias, “The Kibbutz,” the Golan Heights, Haifa, Zefat (Safad), Orthodox Jews in Israel, Historical Acre, the Baha’is and the Druze minority in Israel

“We stopped at each site and learned its basic history. A priest in Galilee blessed us by Peter’s rock, courtesy of our very own resident director. In Acre we met with a wonderful man named Hassan… he was so humble and kind, yet obviously wise. He fought for peace between Arabs and Jews in Israel, and he predated 1948 yet decided to stay in Acreo, regardless of his situation.” – Mike

Tel Aviv: The Friendly Stranger

Tel Aviv may be unfamiliar, but Elizabeth finds that the city’s openminded strangers make new places, faces and destinations welcoming.

“The friendliness of strangers has been such a fun surprise, like just being able to walk up to anyone for help or directions and having them be more than willing to show you or walk with you to your destination…it’s amazing to be in a place with so much historical and present relevance!” – Elizabeth

Israel: Beyond the Classroom, Beyond the Headlines

Northwestern in Israel created unexpected adventure and immersion that engaged students farther than they thought possible. Upon return, Mike and Robbie take on the big questions: “What’s Next?” and “Why?”

“It is good to have seen a lot of Israel, so that now in class, while I am hearing many city names, I can connect them to reality. I’m looking forward to explain this place on my own now in the next month and a half…I’ve learned to ask ‘Why?’ when I visit a site, and to attempt to understand why claims-makers make their claims.” – Mike

“We have been all across this country and seen things that even natives rarely see on their own and our adventures aren’t even over yet! We have planned out the next two days with the Pride parade and having a little going away party with all the friends we’ve made. I am happy with how this experience turned out and that we all got to go through it together.” – Robbie