I spent my high school senior year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A first, all of my 20-year old roommates thought I was crazy, and for the first few weeks, I did too. Not only had I never traveled by myself before nor had I been on an Israel program, I still had yet to receive my high school diploma. I continuously struggled to acculturate not only to the foreign society, but also to the equally foreign “college atmosphere.”
A few weeks in, I was expressing these frustrations to my father, who was in town on a family-business call, as I helped him clean out my grandmother’s apartment library in Tel Aviv. Although I am paternally Israeli, I explained, I felt lost trying to adjust to the culture. After much frustration, I was toying with the idea of returning home. My dad explained that despite his unconditional support, he thought I should give it a few more weeks. He and I both knew I would never again have this opportunity.
Restraining tears, I was barely paying attention to the memorabilia being tossed into the “discard” pile. Only after throwing numerous faded photos did I notice a weathered, blue pamphlet with Hebrew writing on the cover. Intrigued, I opened it to find a black and white photo of my grandfather fastened next to his signature and the years 1939-1941. Stunned, I considered what I was holding. Remembering what my parents told me about my family’s history during the Holocaust, I realized that my grandfather’s family sent him to an Israeli university in the late 30’s. During his first year abroad, they warned him not to return to Poland over his Passover break. Fearing he would never come back to Israel, my grandfather listened, and never again saw his Polish classmates that went home during Passover. I immediately flipped to the fragile blue cover and deciphered the Hebrew aloud: “The Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Student Card.”
I then realized I was holding a piece of family history, as well as the motivation I needed to stay. My grandfather’s decision to stay in Israel saved his life, and my decision to stay in Israel completely enriched mine. I truly owe the person I am today to my experience abroad. After I changed my attitude, I embraced my obstacles as learning experiences. I put more effort into my Hebrew, roommates, and acculturation. As a result, I learned so much about myself and my heritage.
Mainly, though, my year abroad taught me the importance of ensuring Jewish continuity. We are, and always have been, under attack: whether it’s external through anti-Semites or internal through assimilation, Jews all over need to unite and return to their roots. Studying in Israel allowed me to re-prioritize my life and recognize the importance of embracing my heritage. Ever since I returned to the states, I have been extremely involved in Hillel at the University of Texas at Austin. There, I am a Mashgichah for the kosher kitchen, I co-chair the Orthodox Minyan, and I have represented Hillel on various trips around the world, including Israel and Argentina. Adjusting to the alien atmospheres and living independently before I graduated high school was difficult, but I knew I was in Israel for a reason, and I am glad I had a role model to keep me motivated and strong.