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Israel Like I've Never Seen It Before

A look back at the first month of the IGF program

· Israel,IGF,summary

I've been in Israel since the beginning of the month, but it's taken me until now to actually blog about my experience thus far. I hope to be more consistent about my blogging going forward, but this one will have to cover the first month of my time here, which was chock-full of activities, learning and adjustment.

Arriving in Israel

The flight was uneventful, as flights go. It was neat to see the little "Israel section" of Newark airport with different candies and treats.

I hadn't flown out of the country since 2014 (the last time I went to Israel), so I forgot how long and exhausting just sitting on a plane could be. But when I finally arrived and saw the scenes of Ben Gurion airport, it all came rushing back to me. The architecture of the airport, the Hebrew written everywhere, and even a wall full of Goldstar beer bottles (Goldstar is one of the few mass-market beers brewed within Israel) made me feel the excitement and rush of being somewhere I'd been before, but was at the same time unfamiliar. I took my time navigating the airport, as it was around 10 in the morning in Israel and I was in no rush. I patiently gathered my bags, withdrew some cash and figured out how to rent a cart to push my bags on.


I had been warned to not accept the offers of random cab drivers who came up to me and offered to give me a ride, and for good reason. They were asking ₪250 (the shekel-dollar ratio is about 3.5:1), while I found a shuttle outside that only charged ₪64. I didn't take any photos of the ride over to Jerusalem, which is unfortunate, because the trip was gorgeous, and I was really excited to be back. After a bit of confusion in figuring out where my new place actually was, I made it inside and soon met my roommates. Everyone was friendly and we quickly started chatting and getting to know each other. The next day, we met up with some of the other fellows in the afternoon to walk down Hamesila (or train-track) Park, which follows the railway of the train constructed by the Ottomans at the end of the 19th century (for New Yorkers, the highline would be the equivalent). Later that night, we reunited and went to Ben Yehuda Street, a busy, pedestrian-only part of town with lots of food shops. We went to Moshiko, a great falafel place I had been to on previous trips to Israel, and it did not disappoint. This is the best shot of us:

The Israel Government Fellows Program

For those who don't know what I'm doing here, the Israel Government Fellows (IGF) combines high-quality professional experience through government internships with lectures and trips about Israeli and Jewish culture and even ulpan (Hebrew lessons). There are 9 Americans (including yours truly), 4 Brazilians, 2 Argentinians, 2 Brits and 1 German in our cohort. And right from the beginning, we started firing on all cylinders. The program is run out of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, a museum and educational institution named in honor of Menachem Begin, Israel's 6th Prime Minister. Many of our lectures have taken place in a swanky conference room.

We go to ulpan every morning, but in this room every afternoon we've had a steady stream of lectures from different experts on different topics related to Israel and Judaism. They have included (but are not limited to):

  • History of Jewish life and migration in the 19th century
  • The evolution of Jewish faith and practice
  • Different streams of Zionism
  • Political parties in early Israel
  • History of Israel as a state (post-1948)
As a secular Jew who has not engaged much with Jewish culture beyond an occasional discussion or Shabbat meal, this has been eye-opening for me. I've long been conflicted over what it means to be a part of the Jewish people without embracing the Jewish religion, and while I knew I wasn't the first person to ask those questions, I never realized just how far back people were asking it. Many of the fathers of Zionism - Theodore Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin (depending on who you ask) - were all secular, and saw the establishment of the state of Israel as the way for secular Jews to honor their people, culture and history. Even with a lecture every day, I know I've only scratched the surface of these topics, and I'm definitely excited to learn more. We're also beginning to get into modern Israel, and connecting present-day issues with our perspectives and feelings on the Jewish culture.

These seminars have not shied away from the Israel/Palestinian conflict, or attempted to give us only one perspective. As I've learned, this conflict has been at the center of much of Israel's history, and like any good historian our education director is taking pains to present multiple points of view. We haven't focused on it extremely deeply, but I do know that later in the year we will actually be going to Palestine to talk with Palestinians. The discussions will be short on answers, I'm sure, but big on questions. IGF won't try to convince me of a particular point of view.

Trips and Events

Our very first week, we were made aware of a "town hall" type campaign from Yair Lapid, founder of the centrist Yesh Atid party and Prime Minister hopeful (Prime Ministers are not directly elected so he's not actually a candidate). Because it was an event for "Anglos" in Israel, the whole talk was in English, and about half of the IGF fellows (along with the education director) showed up. Based on my very limited knowledge of issues in Israel society, a lot of what he said made sense to me. Maybe I'll go into it later once I've had the opportunity to give some of his talking points a more critical analysis. But regardless of that, we all had a good time, and even met of the IGF alums, who had made aliyah (moved permanently to Israel) literally 9 hours earlier.

All of the IGF fellows are placed in different ministries within the executive branch (a couple are at NGOs), but it made sense for us to understand the other two branches. During our second week, we toured the Knesset (legislative branch) and supreme court. They're both beautiful with a lot of history.

Additionally, during the third week we took some trips out of Jerusalem. We went to a leadership center in Neot Kedumim, a national park dedicated to gathering the flora and fauna mentioned in the Torah. The guide ran exercises meant to improve our cohesion as a group, including coordinating across four different rope puller to drop a bucket in a well and - I kid you not - actual goat herding.

The next day, we were on the road again. First we went to Haifa, a port city north of Tel Aviv that has been known for relatively peaceful integration between Jews, Muslims, Christians, Ba'Hai and Druze religions. We met with people in Beit Hagefin, a sort of community center meant to foster these types of connection, and also explored the Ba'Hai gardens, which were just gorgeous.

After that, it was off to Usfiya, a city largely populated by Druze. We ate at a wonderful guest house with awesome food and a killer view, and heard from a young Druze woman about Druze life and culture (if you think Jews are a religious minority, we've got nothing on the Druze). We then traveled to the Galilee, an expansive valley area that was home to Jews exiled from Jerusalem following the destruction of the second temple.

We stayed at a guest house in the city of Akko, and the next day met with the mayor of another northern town, Kfar Vradim. He talked with us about the struggles of governance, particularly when he clashes with the Knesset, and about how the city has developed itself economically over the years. Next up was Peki'in, a Druze town that has regularly been inhabited by Jews for at least two millennia. It was a very interesting mix of ancient and modern, and a synagogue in town is actually on the ₪100 note. The town also happens to be home to Gamila, a soap company named for its founder, a local woman now in her 70s. Buying it online costs $35 for one bar of soap - I got a 4-pack for about $40.

We topped things off with a hike up to an old crusader fort. Nothing to see there except the amazing views.

Jewish Holidays

Every Friday night is Shabbat, and while I had a few Shabbat dinners in the states, most of them were basically like regular dinners with candles and prayers. Israelis do Shabbat differently - their doors are open to anyone who needs a dinner, and there's often enough food to rival a Thanksgiving meal in the states. We also recently celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and I found myself having meals in several different strangers' houses. The way the Jewish community comes together to celebrate holidays is palpable, and it's giving me a whole new appreciation for what it means to be a part of this tribe.

As I write this, it's Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. It's meant to ask forgiveness and to forge a clear path for the year ahead, and while I haven't given it much attention in years past, this seemed like an appropriately self-reflective time to get the blog post out. I'm even fasting, which I haven't done in at least a decade. Last night, I also attended the slichot (prayers for pardons) at the kotel, or Western Wall. It was an incredible schlep to get through, but also a moment of true community - I'd never been part of such a large crowd of Jews in my entire life. (I didn't take any pictures, but I did record video, which I'll post later.)

Wrapping Up

Believe it or not, all of this is just a small truncation of my jam-packed experience so far. There's a lot more I could say, and I hope to publish blog posts more often, but for now, as Yom Kippur draws to a close, this feels an appropriate way to put a button on my first month here. I'll probably upload these pictures (and more!) to Facebook, so keep an eye out! I'm sure you'll see my writing here again soon.

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