TEL AVIV — It has been 13 days since I arrived in Tel Aviv for my semester abroad, and I can safely say that this experience so far has been entirely different than the Taglit-Birthright trip I went on two summers ago.
From the moment I walked into Newark International Airport to depart on Jan. 18, the general feeling was different — not instantly Jewish and spiritual, like the feeling that pulsed through me when arriving in Israel two years ago. Why did these students really want to go to Tel Aviv for their abroad experience? Because they loved Birthright? Because they wanted to rediscover their Jewish heritage or get in touch with their spirituality?
Looking at the crowd around me, resplendent in designer clothes and sunglasses and clearly not from Pittsburgh, I started to hope Tel Aviv wouldn’t be a trendy Mecca disguised as a Jewish pilgrimage trip for most of the people in my program.
The answer to that question has yet to be determined. For the time I’ve been here thus far, I haven’t felt strongly religious, and I have felt pangs of jealousy at my friends who have family here and have attended a Shabbat dinner. Except for the small stretch of Tel Aviv I saw on Birthright, I feel much like I am in a different country than the one I saw in the Golan Heights, Jerusalem and Tsfat. I keep reminding myself that I’m not just in Tel Aviv — I am in the State of Israel, and there is much more to discover than restaurants, beaches and nightlife.
I’ve come to realize that this city is an anomaly: a highly developed, lively and wealthy metropolis perched on the Mediterranean Sea, with more life and culture to offer than I ever imagined. Often I think of Tel Aviv as the fruition of Zionist dreams, but I have to remind myself that this city does not represent all of Israel.
In fact, Tel Aviv means different things to the varying cultures of people enrolled at Tel Aviv University’s School for Overseas Students. In my Sunday through Thursday ulpan (intensive Hebrew) course, most of the class is comprised of people like myself — 20-years-old, Jewish, in love with Israel and fresh out of the first semester of their junior year of college. But there’s also a Russian woman in her 30s, a German father and the students from Peruvian Jewish communities — like the one who sat with my Philadelphia-born roommate at our kitchen table studying Hebrew and making jokes.
To me, all of us walk on campus and throughout the city with a quiet, unspoken Jewishness. We’re not quite sure of all of our similarities yet, but as we glance around at each other in our little classroom, one thing is true, even if we don’t talk about it all the time: we’re all Jewish, and we’re all thrilled to be here in Tel Aviv.
To some students, it’s easy to get trapped in a culture of glamour here, but I am determined to find a healthy balance between having fun and my true purpose for studying in Israel in the first place. The last thing I want is to appear an ungrateful, shallow American who chose Tel Aviv for the wrong reasons.
Our program’s first trip to Jerusalem is on Feb. 8, and I can’t wait to stand at the Wall again, pray and stick a note within its cracks. Although I love Tel Aviv and can’t wait to tell you more about it, I came for Israel.
(Ashley Gold of Monroeville, an incoming senior at Penn State and staff writer for The Daily Collegian, begins a series of columns about her semester of study in Israel. Gold will be The Chronicle’s new State College correspondent when she returns to school this fall.)