Shabbat Shalom! And Shalom from Karmi’el, Israel, my new home for the next three months. My name is Billie Hirsch, and I am a 22-year old recent graduate of Emmanuel College in Boston, as well as a participant of OTZMA in its 26th and best (says yours truly) year for 2011-2012. For those not as well-versed in organizations sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America, OTZMA is a 10-month leadership development, volunteer-oriented program that offers Jewish adults the tremendous opportunity to live, work and explore Israel in a plethora of settings. The program commences in late August and ends in late June, and since the twenty-third of August, twenty-eight of us have been getting acclimated to Israel in various ways. Certainly, when a gregarious group of people who voluntarily give up their friends, homes, and jobs to volunteer for a year in their homeland, interesting stories of why we’re here and how we got here are bound to be bounced back and forth, and playing a bit of the ole’ Jewish geography proves that we are really are uncannily interconnected, across state lines and regardless of differences in coasts.
For the next just-under-a-year, I will be learning Hebrew in Ulpan and lending a hand at various organizations in Karmi’el, volunteering in my beautiful partnership city of Haifa, and interning at a women’s non-profit in Tel Aviv. For the next ten months, I will also be blogging once a week on my experiences. While I could talk for miles about the program, and I shall within these year-long posts; Yalla, let’s move on…to cover OTZMA’s highlights of our first week in the Holy Land!
(OTZMAnikim hiking and climbing through En Gedi in the Judean Desert)
Since landing in Israel, very much of OTZMA’s activities have been centered around getting acclimated to this beautiful country that we are going to be calling home for at the least, ten months. We OTZMAnikim grew closer than I could have imagined any group could have within a few short days, sharing our stories and comparing our reasons for coming to Israel while hiking the En Gedi Nature Reserve in Arad, swimming—or should I say floating—in the Dead Sea, frolicking in natural springs and waterfalls within the Judean desert, and staying a few nights at Kibbutz Almog.
(OTZMAnikim Perry and Katie at the Hadag Nahash concert)
While that sounds like a mouthful, it fortunately doesn’t stop there. OTZMAnikim spent a night together in Jerusalem, exploring the nightlife and interacting with local Israeli’s in bustling Jaffa Square. We also got the exciting and rare opportunity to go see a Hadag Nahash concert, a very very popular Israeli hip hop/funk band based out of Jerusalem. We were paired with our Karmi’el host families who have taken each of us in as their children and fed us with their stories and Shakshuka until we couldn’t fit anything more in our minds or stomachs, yet pleaded for future visits. We visited the Gilad Shalit tent in Jerusalem on the day of Gilad’s 25th birthday and gathered to hear more of his sad, sad story, told by one of his very patient and humbling cousins. The Mercaz Klitah, or Immigrant Absorption Center in Karmi’el, our home for the next three months before we all go off to our Federation’s Partnership cities, is a safe and beautiful place for immigrants who’ve made aliyah and who are getting acclimated to the country and language, and we have met lots of immigrants who are kind to us and allow us to play “hit the American in the face with water sponges” with their children outside all the time. This ten month trip has only showed us ten days of itself, and already I’m head over heels in love with this country, it’s people, and of course, OTZMAnikim and OTZMA staff.
(Natural springs and jumping rocks in En Gedi)
**Post cursor: Now don’t get me wrong, I understand this blog entry is a bit of a blur. The past ten days have been literally jam-packed with events, classes, dinners, our first Shabbat as a group, swimming pool sessions, potluck dinners, meetings with MASA representatives and our Federation representatives, bus rides and host family dinners. I am excited for Ulpan to commence and our volunteer sites to begin, so that things can slow down a bit and I can share with all of you an OTZMA week that doesn’t sound like I’m stuffing what seems like months into one tiny blog entry.
(Economic protests near Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem)
In fact, while all the OTZMAnikim are out with their friends or host families sharing Shabbat dinner, I am still unpacking in my room at the Mercaz Klitah and finally getting to reflect on this past week, reveling in how fast the past ten days have gone by and, simultaneously, how long it feels like we’ve been here based on how close we all are with one another. Having this blog is going to be extremely cathartic for me. While things are moving fast both in our lives as OTZMAnikim and especially in Israel’s very hot political climate, writing and documenting for readers and for myself is especially grounding. With all of this finally written down and off my chest, I end this entry sitting with one of my new best friends on this trip, Stevye. She and I are sitting down to Shabbat dinner together, thankful for new friends (family, really), new experiences, and this tremendous and breathtakingly beautiful country we are lucky enough to call home for the next ten months. Look forward to my next post sometime next week, as I re gather my thoughts and try to share with all of you just how ineffably magnificent this experience has been and is going to be.
(Photos by Perry Bindelglass)