by Emily Kohuth, alumna of Masa Israel's Conservative Yeshiva
Several months ago I opened a Rosh Hashanah e-card from a fellow former ulpan student. She asked if I remembered her. Really, how could I forget her; she was a four-and-a-half foot-tall ball of fire—a feisty, opinionated Latina grandmother. On the surface we had little in common besides our low-level Hebrew course at Jerusalem’s Ulpan Beit Ha’am. I was a semi-newly minted metalsmith and Judaica artist in search of a better Jewish education, and she was a retired secretary fulfilling her dream of making aliyah. But there we were together, comparing our homework assignments at 7:15 each morning, five days a week for four months, and trying to find our footing in Jerusalem.
Finding my way was not simple. For one thing I have no sense of direction, and of course my painful lack of Hebrew skills was an obvious hindrance, but I also knew no one in the country when I first touched down in Tel Aviv. During my first few hours in Israel, I felt like my ancestors probably had when they arrived at Ellis Island. I passed through customs at Ben-Gurion Airport with just a suitcase, an address in my pocket, and a fiendish case of vertigo. Fortunately, the address led me to my first piece of stable ground, the Conservative Yeshiva, where I would study Jewish subjects thanks to a grant from Masa Israel Journey.
When the Yeshiva’s associate director handed me a cup of water and made sure I was settled into the adjoining hostel, I believed that I was well on my way to building a spiritual relationship with my new home. However, the daily reality of dodging vehicles driving on the sidewalks and sidestepping a minefield of dog droppings strained what should have been an instant connection to the holy city. Even at the Kotel, the Jewish geographical heart, I experienced a barrier that was both physical and emotional while pressed into the tiny women’s section.
Within a few months, I did find my place in the ancient city, though. With time to immerse myself in Jewish learning, I progressed in my classes at the Conservative Yeshiva. Eventually, I found myself following along in the daily prayer services at the Yeshiva; I no longer stood in the back, faking the choreography. Shabbat dinners alongside friends revealed the beauty of my religion to me more than any holy site. On the Jerusalem Streets, I got to know the raw Israeli culture when a passing jogger stopped to lecture me on the deleterious nature of diet soda and when a woman pushed a stroller up to my friend and me at a restaurant’s outdoor seating, demanding that we watch her child. Even as we gaped at her as she strode in, I realized that Israelis are like your outspoken family members, freely dispensing advice.
For a brief time, I was privileged to be a member of that family. Even now that I have returned to verdant Massachusetts, there is still a part of me that is utterly convinced that if I walk out of my front door I will step onto Ben Yehuda Street or Emek Refaim or run into my favorite Latina grandmother. Back in my polite town, I can only think of one thing: I want to go home.