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Israel: A Retrospective

or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Admit I Couldn't Keep a Consistent Blog"

I had such grand plans when I began my year in Israel. A new country, with new people and new challenges. I was acting on a goal I'd had for years - to participate in the Israel Government Fellows Program - and I had planned to document the hell out of my time there. What a great plan! I'd have plenty of time to reflect, write smart and meaningful insights about my experiences, and keep a strong record of everything I did so that my year would not fade from my memory.

How foolish of me.

There were several reasons I didn't end up keeping a blog like I'd planned, some better than others. I'll do my best to cover the issues here, highlight some of the most momentous events from my year, and conclude with a little social suicide by giving my opinion on Israeli policies in the West Bank and the new Nation-State basic law. Let's get going.

No Space

In Israel, I lived with three other fellows on the program, and actually shared a room with one of them. I'd been trepidatious of this - I hadn't had a roommate in a couple of years, and I hadn't actually shared a room since my first year of college. It was far from an ideal situation, but I decided to do it so i could save money. I also figured that maybe it was karma, since I'd gotten away with not sharing a room for some time, and that maybe now I would be more comfortable sharing a room than I was before. Long story short: I was, but it was still difficult.

The people I lived with were great, and I have no real quarrel with any of them. But nevertheless, being in such close quarters with other people, and having no real private space to call my own, made it difficult for me to focus on real, reflective work like journal writing. I'd often get distracted by their conversations and the sounds of the shows they were watching, and just in general felt a bit of heaviness from constantly being in others' energetic space. Usually I would just watch TV, or do work that didn't require a lot of emotional focus, like answering emails. I'm glad that I lived with roommates in these circumstances and that we all remained friends (which has not been the case for me before), but now that I've proved to myself I can do it, I don't need to do it again.

Difficult Trauma and Sudden Changes

About two months before I flew to Israel, I interviewed with a variety of different government agencies to discuss the potential openings they had there. Given my interests and background, it was little surprise that I was ultimately placed at Israel's Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). What was surprising was the candid relationship I quickly developed with my new supervisor (or "mentor" in IGF parlance). She was very open, friendly and possessed none of the emotional distance you might expect a new colleague to have. Even though I hadn't yet met her in person, I felt comfortable around her.

We had a month and a half of ulpan (Hebrew language instruction) and lectures before Sukkot, the holiday that traditionally marked the end of the harvest. We had a break during that period to do what we liked, and following that, our work was set to start. I did go to MOST one day before the holiday began to fill out some paperwork, during which I met my mentor in person, and she told me she would actually be in the states when I was set to start. So my plan was to come in and get to know the office and my new colleagues without her. I knew that this was going to be a turning point - unfortunately, I didn't realize just how.

During the break, my parents called me and informed me that my grandmother had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer. This came as a bit of a shock, as I'd seen her shortly before I left and she seemed fine. It was difficult news to hear, and it felt like a punch to the stomach. But I held out hope that it would not act fast - I had to focus on my work. But that too proved to be incorrect...

As previously discussed, my mentor was not present when I arrived at MOST for my first day of work. I did my best to be active without her: I met the other scientific directors, chatted with the part-time student workers, and even scoped out nearby places to eat. But since I was sitting in my mentor's office, more and more people started asking me about some of her work, which I of course had no clue about. The first day she told me she'd be back came and went with no sign of her, and the following day I got a call from her.

She wasn't coming back.

She gave me the full explanation, which I won't go into here, but "toxic work environment" doesn't begin to describe what she had been dealing with. Even for Israel, where everyone is known to have strong personalities (and that's the diplomatic term for it), this stood out as ridiculous. Every time I went into detail with someone in person, they would be surprised. So I didn't (and don't) blame my mentor for leaving, and she actually proved to be a great mentor and friend outside of a work context, but in that moment I suddenly had to pivot hard.

There I was, with a dying grandmother and no mentor at my job - a job, by the way, that I had been anticipating and preparing to take for several years. Here was my big shot to do work in science policy - for some reason, still my chosen field - in Israel, my ancestral homeland and the Start-Up Nation, and it was falling apart before it had even begun. I was determined to salvage this somehow, and on the advice of my program director, I started talking to the other scientific directors there, to see what I could work on and what I could do.

One challenge I've always worried about when traveling to a foreign country is not knowing the language. Sure, a lot of people throughout the world know English, but it's obviously not the same, and a lot of work is still conducted in the country's native tongue. Being a government agency, MOST was no exception, and during the subsequent three weeks not only did they struggle to find someone who could be my replacement mentor, but the only work they came up for me to do was writing one five-minute speech and filling in a spreadsheet with some basic information on EU countries. Necessary work for the ministry, perhaps, but not work that was giving me the kind of learning experience I'd spent so much time and money to get.

My grandmother's health only became worse, and while it was obviously affecting my mother significantly, I was also having a hard time of it. She was my last living grandparent, and the only one I'd had since I was 7. She was never very emotionally open, but she could always be counted on to do grandmotherly things like send me money on my birthday and attend my big milestones like my plays and graduation. I did have a few deeper conversations with her, which hinted at a much more active and raucous youth, but ever since I really knew her she spent most of her time in her apartment, with only occasional international travel.

With fuck-all going on at my job, my parents and I booked a short flight back to the states so I could see her. IGF was entirely supportive of this, of course, but it did mean I would miss some of the lectures. The first day I saw her she was talkative, although bedridden. I even went and got us all some Shake Shack, which happens to be nearby, and she drank part of a milkshake. The next day, however, was much harder. She seemed barely lucid, unable to string sentences together, and would often refuse water. There were some end-of-care attendants present, and they provided some pamphlets on the dying process. It was hard to read this, but also somehow peaceful. We all knew that this roller coaster has almost completed its upward ascent, and soon enough would race downwards. Many other family members dropped by, and as of this writing that's still the last time I've seen most of them in person.

I didn't do much for the next couple of days - just went back to Jersey with my folks and saw one or two people in the city. I flew back to Israel a few days before Thanksgiving, did a little work for MOST, and then took part in a Thanksgiving celebration in my apartment where I got drunker than I can remember being in some time. I didn't throw up or anything, but I did pass out earlier than I'd planned. The next couple of days hung heavy for me, until I got the call the following Sunday that she had passed. I remember not knowing exactly how to process this, so I just curtly told my roommates and then went for a long walk around Jerusalem. I did this partly to refill my bus pass, but mostly so I could be alone but still be moving.

Literally the day after this was the week-long Masa leadership summit, which I had previously signed up for. I'd been told by IGF's director that this was a worthwhile experience, so despite everything, I'd decided to go. My parents and I had previously decided that we wouldn't let this sabotage my Israel experience, and in a sense, the worst was over. She was gone, and now the roller coaster was on its way down. Still, though, I would have not preferred to be in a massive crowd of 150 people in such a state, and during the first couple of days I was especially withdrawn. I got a call from the program director offering condolences, which was nice and well-appreciated, and slowly over the course of the week I opened up more. We took a day trip to a cool artist collective near the shuk at Kiach 5, got some very cool training from an innovation consulting firm called Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), and we had a talent show portion where I performed "Wet Dream" by Kip Adotta with my friend Andrew on backing guitar. I had a great time doing that, and was able to enjoy my 15 minutes of fame from that during the summit. I certainly wasn't feeling completely better at the end, but I did know I felt okay being around groups of people.

A couple of weeks after this, I went on a men's retreat weekend, which was similar to the Mankind Project experience I'd done earlier that year. I has signed up for this one, called Well of Being, in anticipation of my grandmother's passing, and so came into the weekend with very clear goals. I would not have done a retreat so similar to the Mankind Project within a year of doing it otherwise. While the premise and environment was familiar, I was actually surprised by the differences I saw, and the different sorts of structures and exercises we went through during the weekend. But most importantly, I did get the space to process the death, reflect on my connect with her, and I actually cried for the first time since I heard the news. I even asked the other participants to say the Mourner's Kadish for her, and definitely felt in a better place after the weekend was done.

Feeling renewed, I went into MOST the next week determined to figure my situation there out. I wrote out three proposals for stuff I could work on, only to be met with a combination of confusion and incomprehension. "We'd be happy for you to work on whatever you like," I was told. "But we don't have anyone here who can help you." That clinched it, and I immediately called up the IGF director right afterwards to start the search for a new role, and began to tell everyone at MOST I'd be transitioning out.

IGF's government relations staffer had recently and rather suddenly departed the organization for unclear reasons. In his place was someone new, who was friendly and spoke English very well (she was born and raised in Israel but her parents are American). We had a fun (outdoor!) laser tag event that she attended (but didn't participate in), so I think it was a bit awkward for her to suddenly be introduced to everyone at once. And as timing would have it, her first major task in her new role was to help me find my new role. During the next couple of weeks, the IGF staff worked with my former mentor, and they ended up identifying two places for me to interview. One was the brand new Societal Challenges Division office (less than six months old) in the Israel Innovation Authority, the agency responsible for technology and economic growth, and my other major preference for a placement). The other was Start-Up Nation Central, an organization that grew out of the book Start-Up Nation that I was actually already familiar with from Israel Tech Challenge, and knew them as a marketing organization for Israeli tech. Not too shabby for that person's first major task.

 

I interviewed at the Societal Challenges Division expecting I would take that job, but not only was it a hassle to get to (it was located in Airport City, a small city that's basically a giant parking lot dotted with corporate buildings), the director was a little distant and didn't seem to have a good idea of how she could use me. Then I interviewed at Start-Up Nation Central, which had offices in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Not only was I surprised to learn that they had a whole research department that I discovered I could do a lot in, but when they did offer me a placement, they also offered to cover my meals and transportation (something almost no other fellows were offered). So that made the choice easy, and I was excited to close my loop by working for the organization I'd visited during my prior tech trip to Israel.

 

It wasn't quite the end of the story, though. They had to send over a contract for the Begin Center (the sponsoring organization of my program) to sign before I could start. That was fine, and standard. The problem was that they'd never had an intern for more than a couple of months before, and weren't really sure how to handle me from a legal perspective.

IGF's government relations staffer had recently and rather suddenly departed the organization for unclear reasons. In his place was someone new, who was friendly and spoke English very well (she was born and raised in Israel but her parents are American). We had a fun (outdoor!) laser tag event that she attended (but didn't participate in), so I think it was a bit awkward for her to suddenly be introduced to everyone at once. And as timing would have it, her first major task in her new role was to help me find my new role. During the next couple of weeks, the IGF staff worked with my former mentor, and they ended up identifying two places for me to interview. One was the brand new Societal Challenges Division office (less than six months old) in the Israel Innovation Authority, the agency responsible for technology and economic growth, and my other major preference for a placement). The other was Start-Up Nation Central (SNC), an organization that grew out of the book Start-Up Nation that I was actually already familiar with from Israel Tech Challenge, and knew them as a marketing organization for Israeli tech. Not too shabby for that person's first major task.

I interviewed at the Societal Challenges Division expecting I would take that job, but not only was it a hassle to get to (it was located in Airport City, a small city that's basically a giant parking lot dotted with corporate buildings), the director was a little distant and didn't seem to have a good idea of how she could use me. Then I interviewed at Start-Up Nation Central, which had offices in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I was surprised to learn that they had a whole research department that I discovered I could do a lot in, and the director of the division (with whom I interviewed) and I got along very well. I was surprised that no one on the team knew how to use R, but that quickly turned out to be a major unique skill of mine. Furthermore, when they did offer me a placement, they also offered to cover my meals and transportation (something almost no other fellows were offered). So that made the choice easy, and I was excited to close my loop by working for the organization I'd visited during my prior tech trip to Israel.

It wasn't quite the end of the story, though. They had to send over a contract for the Begin Center (the sponsoring organization of my program) to sign before I could start. That was fine, and standard. The problem was that they'd never had an intern for more than a couple of months before, and weren't really sure how to handle me from a legal perspective. The contract that should have been signed in a few days ended up taking a month. I would contact IGF every few days, asking about an update, only to be told it would be coming soon. I didn't really do much during January - I definitely should have traveled more, but I was worried about spending money, and wasn't even sure where I'd go alone. I did at least manage to apply again for a Jewish scholarship I had been rejected from the first time, and this time I actually got it! But other than that January was more or less a wasted month, and near the end of it I actually went to the director to ask what the hell we could do about this. Fortunately, near the end of the following week, while we were in Shiloh in the Samaria area of the West Bank, we got the confirmation that the contract was finally settled. I remember the elation I felt as I was able to call SNC and confirm that I'd be coming in that following Sunday.

Once I actually started there, I really liked working at SNC. There were many people there who were my age, and there was a lot going on both within the research team, as well as throughout SNC overall. This made it a very dynamic place to be and to learn from, but I wasn't able to get quite as much out of it as I would have liked. This leads right to the third major issue...

Commuting

For those who don't know, I went to middle and high school in a city about 40 minutes by train from where my family actually lived. This is a pretty unusual thing for a kid to do, but among the students of this particular school it was pretty common. I was bound to the schedule of the train, and it would take over an hour to get from my home to school, door-to-door. I also commuted in and out of New York City often after college, which was pretty much the same situation. After all this, I'd grown pretty sour on long commutes, and when I lived in DC and Baltimore I made a point of living much closer to my workplaces. This meant I could ride my bike, take public transportation or walk if I had to. And that was great - I got exercise, and was in complete control of when I arrived at and left work.

Already, when I was working at MOST, I knew things would be different. It was far away from the Begin Center and my apartment, and it required a 45 minute bus ride to get there. Still, though, that wasn't so bad, since the bus stop wasn't far from my place and I could go in whenever I wanted (given that no one was paying attention to me there). However, SNC took the commuting to another level. It had both a Jerusalem and Tel Aviv office, and the Jerusalem office was an ideal 15 minute walk from my place, and less than 5 from the Begin Center. However, it was a small office, and only a small portion of the SNC staff was ever there. My supervisor, and all of the research team, was located in the Tel Aviv office, which required two bus rides and a 20 minute walk to reach in Tel Aviv from my place in Jerusalem. By the time I accepted this job, I'd already been locked into the Jerusalem lease through June, and while I briefly considered trying to get a place in Tel Aviv, I didn't want to have to spend more on rent, find a sublettor, and move my stuff over. So I sucked it up and did the commute.

The commute was difficult for several reasons. Obviously, it added a lot more time to my travel day, and it was common for me to leave at 8 and not arrive back at home until 12-13 hours later. On days I didn't go to Tel Aviv, it was harder for me to know what was going on with the research team, and I felt like an outsider on the team because I wasn't privy to what others were doing (the language barrier didn't help things there either). But from a personal perspective, I felt torn between two cities. I had difficulty committing to events in either city, because I was rarely sure when exactly I would be where. And while we had worked out a plan for me to spend certain days in one city and certain days in the other, that plan started to fall apart as I had to deal with other commitments and my mentor suddenly told me they didn't have a desk for me anymore. I didn't feel like I could put down roots - even temporary ones - at my workplace because of this.

A Happy Ending

I certainly wouldn't be telling the truth if I said that my time in Israel was easy. But I'd also be lying if I said that I hated it. Despite these difficulties (and more), I felt truly privileged to be able to live and work in this country. The people I met, the lectures I attended, the trips I took, and everything I learned in all my contexts really helped me to integrate and feel at home in Israel at large. I didn't realize this at the beginning, but almost all Masa programs are 5 months, which is definitely not enough time to really know Israel. Just when you're starting to really settle in, you're done. And if I'd only been in Israel for five months, I would have spent most of it dealing with my grandmother. So I am grateful not just to IGF, and not just to everyone who befriended me and supported me during this period, but also to myself. I saw this opportunity, identified it as interesting and relevant for me, and over the course of 5 years worked like hell to make sure I could do it. That's highly unusual for an IGF fellow, most of whom do the program within 6 months to 2 years of first finding out about it. But I worked for it, earned my own money, and came into an experience where I was certainly challenged, but also got to celebrate Israel's 70th anniversary, survive a transition from one workplace to a new one, blaze a new trail for IGF and work with a highly relevant nonprofit and learn from (and advise) SIT. None of those things would have happened had I come even one year earlier.

This entry's gone on long enough, so in my next entry I'll talk more about the highlights of my Israel experience, and give some of my thoughts on the hotbed of Israeli politics and international relations.

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