Counting the strokes: MASA ITF Beersheva more than half way through

We are slightly further than five and a half months into the program, which means that we have four and a half months left, but, who’s counting, right? I think, for various reasons, many fellows are. Some people are looking forward to their independent life in Israel and thus, quite simply, just want to ‘get on with things’ and some are anxious to return to their homes. The groups have already formed, conflicts either exacerbated or on the contrary, diffused, and, judging by our last meeting a week before, we, as a group are trying to remain on amiable terms, hopefully behaving agreeably towards each other, pushing through the program and its challenges, expectantly reaching the goals, which we had set for ourselves individually before we took off and landed at the Ben Gurion last year in September.

So far I avoided writing anything substantial about the program I am participating in for a very simple reason – I see it primarily as a means to an end. I joined it because, purely, I needed to find a way of living in Israel before making Aliyah, sort things that needed sorting without pressure and find out if I see myself living here. I figured that ten months would give me enough time to gain some work experience in this country and also look for more appropriate opportunities long-term should I wish to stay.

From the very beginning I focused on finding opportunities that would lend a hand with continuing my career path and I paid little attention, if none really, to what has been happening in the group and in the program. There are however certain things I have observed, which have been both challenging personally as well as collectively. Here are a few points that one must have to come to terms with midway through this program:

1. Accommodation: How to cope with little, often no privacy.

Let’s say something openly here. To say that the flats that we have been accommodated into are small would be an understatement. The fact that the program refers to them as “apartments” is really an exaggeration and there should certainly be more transparency in this matter during the application process. This is the first stroke, if, like me, you have lived alone or at most shared a flat (not a room!) with single professionals, where everyone had their own space, the cleaner came regularly and you had your own bathroom, which was not the size of a matchbox.

Nevertheless, however horribly this may sound, I have been quite blessed living with my flatmates. Interestingly one of them, Sarah, ended up with me by a complete accident. During one of the final interviews with one of our current madrichim I was asked for my flatmate preferences. Of course I said I needed someone who kept Shabbat and kashrut. You can imagine my surprise when on the first day when we moved in together and I asked Sarah about the level of kashrut she replied:

“I don’t eat pork or shellfish.”

I hesitated. I really didn’t know how to pop the question and get the information I needed without sounding overwhelming.

“How about the kitchen?” – I asked.

“What about it?” – She looked increasingly puzzled.

“Do you separate the dishes?”

“Do I what?”

Oyvavoy, I thought; or, bummer (!) in a less civilised manner. I was torn between two very extreme emotions; one was that of the instant realisation how critical the matter was and the other one was that we were to live together for 10 months. The only thing that my mind was saying was: “stay calm, all this can be sorted. Shalom bait”. I really don’t know if she saw the expression on my face, but she asked to what level I kept kashrut. I explained that I’m modern orthodox (for Israelis the term is dati le’umi) and that it’s fine, that if anything I can just get my own dishes. Sarah, bless her heart, protested saying that this would be unheard of that I wound’t be able to eat “in my own house” so to speak and offered to comply with the rules. She has, bless her, along with our other flatmate, Alexa, done as much as they can, really, to make sure that we all feel at home (as much as one can feel at home in a flat of the size of my ex-living room).

Only later, after I filed a complaint, Sarah told me that she was only asked if she ‘celebrated’ Shabbat and ‘ate’ kosher. Celebrate? “Of course”, she said. “I like Shabbat!” Does she ‘keep’ it? Not really. We had a laugh because of this for at least few weeks, but I am glad that mistake was made.

2. Demands of the program. Stroke number two.

I am certain that each of us had different expectations when we joined this program. Some people expected a longer Taglit, some people expected to have more free time; I expected nothing, preparing myself for the worst, but the chance to explore the opportunities available for young people in this country.

On my final Shabbat my best friend (who was also my flatmate) and I invited friends over for Shabbat dinner and at that moment I regretted my decision of applying for this program and quitting my life in London. I realised how much I loved those people and how much I would miss them. I saw another friend of ours; she was part of (what we were called) ‘Shabbat gang’ because we shul-hopped in the area and the three of us more than often went to all the meals together. She tried very hard to hold her tears, bless her. I assumed the look for a frugal rock, absolutely happy to leave that awful place called London, and finally live in the land of my dreams – Israel. The night before I left I couldn’t sleep, I kept packing the remnants of my possessions having sold what I could and having sent the rest to my parent’s house. I was absolutely anxious and scared. I honestly thought that this was the worst idea in my life. “How could I get to that moment?” I kept asking myself. How, move, again? My friend Racheli came in and reasonably told me to relax and think that, if anything, this would be just ten months. “It will help.” Ten months, ten months… I repeated her words like a mantra. In the morning I overslept and called the cab last minute. She helped me shelp my luggage downstairs and put it in the car for me. We said our goodbyes reassuring one another other that we will meet for Sukkot when she comes back to Israel. I scared the cab driver, because I finally openly cried and he had no idea what was happening. He actually thought it was something he did. I explained that I was going to Israel and I was afraid. He asked how long I was going for.

“10 months!” I shouted, like the downing person holding on to an axe hoping for deliverance.

“So? Ten months will pass in no time. You will be back”

“But I want to live in Israel.”

“So why are you crying!?”

Silly question, why was I crying. Because after all I am human and my hormones do get the better of me every now and then (yes, I know this is very, very hard to believe). In anyway, I landed here not expecting holidays. I looked forward to being enough busy to forget about homesickness, knowing that I loved Israel, I love being here, I love the people, the weather, the food and the community.

Of course I do not like all the aspects of the program, though it is much better than I heard. I had received terrible feedback from one of the previous participants before I landed in Israel. The trainings are very helpful, though not exceptionally interesting, frankly some of them are quite boring. I despise seminars where I am forced to talk about how I feel. Most of the time, for obvious reasons, I try to forget how I feel. I have too much on my plate anyway to drain scarce energy by digging through emotions, which are fine to start with. Most of the time I actually don’t know what I feel and I certainly do not want other people I have little connection with to dig through the matters of my heart and mind.

I think many of us think similarly more than half way through now. We just want to get on with things. No need to re-evaluate how we feel every time. Saying this I would suggest that each group should have a psychotherapist, because many people really came here with issues and they project them on their group, making others they live with miserable. In that case, people could choose to talk about their feeling with a professional, not advertise their emotional or mental instability to the whole group.

As I mentioned, I am blessed, thank G-d, living with my flatmates. Actually, my first conversation with Sarah was to tell her that I need my space and when I am ready I will open up. I was absolutely petrified of the group, mostly American, with their lack of emotional privacy (in comparison to the Europeans). They were all over the place, calling everyone friends, I mean people they had just met. I freaked out and told the one person that I knew I couldn’t escape from, to, crudely speaking, back off for now and give me time. It paid off, I believe, she’s great and we do do the ‘girlie chat’, something I thought I was incapable of doing with someone I didn’t know very well.

The view at Rabin's Square
The view at Rabin’s Square

3. Israelis are what you see. It’s time to get over the cultural shock and stop pretending we are in the West.

Here I am speaking from shared experiences. I personally didn’t have a cultural shock with Israelis, perhaps because I had a cultural shock with Americans due to the proximity and daily interaction. I am much better now, for sure, I know what to expect and we have learned to get over the language barrier (yes, there was a language barrier). Often I needed to ask for clarification of certain terms that made little sense in British English, but interestingly we have managed to speak British English, versus American English and do understand each other without the need of explaining what one meant. Actually last night I was asked by someone, not from the group, what kind of English do I teach at school: American English or International English. I haven’t been this puzzled in a long time.

“What International English?” – I asked.

“You know, not American.” – He answered.

“You mean British English? The English? Yes, I teach (the) English.” – I insisted, frustrated.

Funny, in Britain I felt Polish, in Israel I feel British conveniently switching to Polish, if I need to be straightforward and expect people not to take offence.

So, back to the subject matter, many of us, the Westerners, had a cultural shock with Israelis, the language, even the schools we were put into. For example, the volunteer I work with in the religious school had a cultural shock because of the religious aspect of teaching and certain behavioural code that was expected and he was not accustomed to. I think I spent a couple of weeks trying to explain nuances of behaviour, expectations, do’s and don’ts understanding that the place where I felt at home, because of the religious structure, was a challenge for someone else.

If you find yourself not following the Israelis it’s because they are not Western. I love that about them, but I also know that it can be sometimes challenging, especially the way with which they come across as very pushy people. “What’s happening?” “Nothing.” “What nothing, I can see it’s something?” “I don’t want to talk about it!” “What don’t you want to talk about, tell me!” “Do you need to know everything?” “Yes, yallah tell me!” Their intrusion into one’s personal life is groundshaking, but the respect for physical boundaries compensates for it.

My only advice is: go with the flow. They are lovely people, the kind that you can get upset with, yell at them and no one takes offence. You shake hands and share a falafel.

The panorama of Tel Aviv
The panorama of Tel Aviv

4. The program is not there to spoon-feed you. Stroke three for those that need it.

This is what I knew from the start. I knew that I was left to my own devices most of the time. I knew what I wanted and I knew that the program was not there to meet those needs. The program does what it says it does: provides teaching assistants, gives them training and ulpan and takes them on trips. Zehu.

It will not look to help you sort out your life; it will not help you find friends or activities. These are things that you have to invest your time and effort into. Due to the fact that I can’t spend Shabbat in the flat, I am personally forced to sleep at other people’s houses. I do dream of the day when I will be able to wake up on Shabbat, go to shul, come back, change into my pjs and ‘roast the corn’ on the sofa. You didn’t understand the ‘roast the corn’ bit? Don’t worry; it’s a Polish expression describing performing little if no activity for leisure purposes, remaining in non-presentable state, not only for guests, but also for household members. But, do I mind? Absolutely NOT. This way I have met the most amazing people in many cities, became part of the local community and made friends that I wouldn’t have otherwise made. Because of the fact that, on a personal level, I have much less in common with American culture (unless I socialise with people a generation ahead), I have much more in common with the Israeli culture due to the fact that I am not in fact born and bred in Britain; I do find a home among the local people. The integration may be harder for others, but I can honestly say that I have never met more open people, who would be so willing to help you on every step, often getting out of their way and accepting you into their circle of friends.

What I am getting at here is: you need to make that effort to abandon the flock, or take one wingman (at most) and go out, mingle, network and leave your comfort zone.

I do have one advice for people who are planning to stay in Israel. It is this: make the most of your program and madrichim. Milk it while you still can. They, as an organisation, have much better contacts that you will even have as an individual. Approach them and ask them to put you in touch with people within organisations you want to target so they can guide you and coach you in terms of later job-hunting.

In addition, attend lectures, speeches, movies, programs, take part in activities, which are not part of your program… you will discover how vast the social scene is here. If you feel lonely ask random people to go out with you! It worked for me many times.

Hmm, I get an impression that you think by now that you can’t do it, because you are not as outgoing, friendly and open as I am…? Wrong. Honestly. I am one of the most antisocial individuals you could ever meet. I like my space. If I could, I would dig a hole in the ground, surround myself with books, mugs of tea and just spend time with the most amazing person I have ever met in my life – me. Of course I am saying this, because I have no other choice. I have to live with myself, so it’s better I think highly of her. Having said that, I do make a point of forcing myself to abandon the safe post and dive into the social life, with all its disadvantages and lack of privacy. It pays off. It’s scary at the beginning, but so crucial in building your network and making sure you don’t feel isolated.

I understand that we have reached the point of saturation. The volunteering has become monotonous, someone left the dishes unwashed, someone didn’t buy toiled paper and another person again brags about the fact that they dreamt of unicorns the night before during the meeting that you simply want to escape as soon as possible. These are things, sadly, that you can’t change. Are they worth fighting for? Is it worth starting arguments that lead to long-term animosity in the flat that you are ‘sardined’ into?

All I can say is, change your routine, take on new hobbies, take a break from the group if needed, keep your mind open and kill the fear of standing alone for a while.

This program, this opportunity here, is absolutely amazing and one of the kind, but only if you make it special for yourself. The program has flaws as everything in life, it is not tailored to meet everyone’s needs on the individual level, but it is your responsibility to make it work for you. One the positive note, the program does give you a place of work, does expand your work experience through volunteering, does provide ulpan for you to learn Hebrew, does take you on trips to the most amazing places in this country and it challenges you. It challenges everything you have been used to purely because it drops you in the middle of Israel, for us it is more like the middle of the desert, and leaves you unsupervised. That means it is left to you to make decisions how to spend your time and how to invest every minute of it. Of course you do have a structured week, to an extent, but if you are going to rely only on this, you will become the most miserable individual that ever joined this program. Work this system for the remaining four and a half months and hopefully this will indeed be the life-changing experience you may have waited for.

The panorama taken from Yaffo
The panorama taken from Yaffo
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