Imagine a country that is not only holy to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but is also in the middle of a war zone.
Israel is at the crossroads of religion, culture, customs, war, and tradition. When I arrived in Israel in December 2014, it was only months after the country’s most recent conflict in the summer before, instilling a stirring of anxiety within me.
The fear for my safety suddenly melted into a less rational and more pleasant fear that my 10-day trip wouldn’t be enough for me to see and experience everything that I had been excitedly waiting for. On my trip, I found a desire to explore not only more of my Jewish culture and heritage, but also a love of travel and experiences outside of my comfort zone.
We spent 10 days traveling up and down this country that is smaller than New Jersey, coming in close contact at times with countries such as Syria and Jordan, whose borders were only miles away. Hours were spent in outdoor markets, eating our way through cities, walking the same paths that prophets and world leaders had taken before, and seeing Israel through different eyes.
From 5am hikes up huge mountains that once stood as forts, to swimming in the lowest place on Earth, the Dead Sea, Israel offered a variety of different experiences all wrapped up in one country. More than anything though, going to Israel taught me to be proud of my heritage.
Going from a community with a large Jewish population to a large university of 35,000 incredibly diverse people, it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of college life and lose sight of how important you really are.
For me, I was able to understand the concept of “world citizen” in this trip because going to Israel and seeing the culture that I love so much in person really changed my perspective on how I choose to live my life.
We had seven Israeli soldiers join our trip halfway through. Service in the army is mandatory for 18 year olds with men serving three years and women serving two at least. That was a turning point for me in the trip because it really showed me the distinctions of the ways that 18 year olds in Israel lived vs. my life as an 18 year old in the state.
The stark contrasts in our lives didn’t take away from how similar we realized we all were. They listened to the same music, watched the same shows, and wanted the same things for their future as I did. I had never thought about these soldiers as more than just people who were thousands of miles away, fighting for a country that I loved.
Even months later we were able to reconnect with some of these people when they came and visited Athens. This time, we were able to show them our side of being college students. Keeping those connections really brought this trip full circle. Those 10 days brought me much closer with my religion, my community, and who I want to become.
Deep down, I truly believe it’s the cross cultural exchanges that have the most amazing impact on changing a person no matter where they go.
Maital is also part of a phenomenal organization all AIESEC. In conjunction with our partnership with their organization, please see their blog here:
Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, and ultimately deciding to study abroad in Russia was one of the most shocking, terrifying, beautiful, and rewarding experiences of my life.
No matter how much I practiced Russian and how much I prepared myself, there was no way to truly experience a complete and total cultural immersion in a new country until I arrived bags and translating dictionary in hand.
As I walked through the lively streets of Moscow, surrounded by people, I could not help but feel more isolated. In the beginning every street sign seemed so complex, every business advertisement made no sense, and colloquial phrases were so foreign to me. I quickly realized that not many people were too fond of Americans. Russian nationalism is so intense it sharply competes with the United States, if not surpasses us.
At first I was concerned I would stand out like a sad Jewish American thumb for the remainder of my time in Russia, but I fell into a routine, and with that routine, I immersed myself within the Russian culture. You don’t become one of them, but you’re no longer who you were.
In order to compensate for my cultural misidentification, I threw myself into my studies and tried to learn as much about Chekhov as humanly possible. Or you procrastinate and watch Suits on some sort of Netflix rip-off because that blasted country hasn’t been blessed with the glory that is House of Cards or Bojack Horseman. You get Tinder just to talk with random Russians. Hiding behind the vastness that is the Internet is way easier than face to face communication.
Either way, you find methods of coping and providing yourself with this much needed cultural in between, and you try to culturally define yourself, because let’s be real; it’s so much more comfortable when you feel like you belong in some way, rather than feeling like the distinctive American rocking LL Bean because your duck boots are fly as hell. Even if you’re not 100% one of them, you’re at least, like, 50% part of them, and that feels pretty good.
Of course after a few months, these once isolating factors eventually catalyze your connection to the city in the first place. You become much more familiar with your surroundings, and have dramatically improved your linguistic proficiency. Your foreign experience becomes more familiar and inviting as time goes on.
In the few months spent in Russia, you’re not setting yourself up for a new life. You’re simply participating in life as a citizen of another culture as a way of learning and growing, occasionally making mistakes and smashing your face on a toilet and losing a tooth or getting scammed by a local.
However, what people do not often express is the impact of returning from such a dramatic cultural experience. Suddenly, after 27 hours of travel, your flight descends into the USA, and you are greeted with that same familiarity and culture that you left behind.
I had these expectations of what life was going to be like when I returned. Granted, I did not predict those freakin hoverboard things…but other than that I predicted that things would be the same.
I assumed my roommate would snore too loudly, my dogs would make sleeping in my bed impossible and my mom would cry when she saw me at the airport. However, it wasn’t until I pushed my car key into the ignition that I realized how much I had changed.
I was so grateful I could drive somewhere, and had the freedom to be and go wherever I wanted. I was able to cook an omelet in a kitchen that isn’t infested with a new breed of ant. These things should make you feel good.
However, instead of being grateful for your clean kitchen and car, you feel as though the part of yourself that you have been building while abroad got left in the airport. That part of you is no longer needed to excel back in your hometown. I felt so ostracized when I came home, since I was constantly searching for that improved Russian version of myself.
However, as you sit on the floor playing with their dog you find yourself being so self-conscious of what you’re saying.
You have lost all connection to what a cultural norm in the United States is compared to how you have been communicating in Russia. So you sit there on this dirty floor questioning your cultural identity. You realize you are this American born kid who has some Russian cultural insight and you just don’t think you belong anywhere.
At first I could not shake this feeling of my cultural limbo. However, with time I began to realize that my changing and growth never stopped in Russia. Russia helped push me to become the person I am meant to be and for that I will always be grateful. I realized I may have been overreacting when I felt awkward talking to my friends.
At the end of the day, being abroad teaches you about going outside your cultural and social comfort zones, while ultimately pushing you to be a better person yourself. I am constantly readjusting, but I wouldn’t change my abroad experience for anything. Ok, maybe I would not have lost my front tooth, but other than that I would have kept it the same.
So as the year progresses I will continue to readjust and continue my quest of becoming as culturally astute as possible.