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Learning About the World From a Kibbutz in Jerusalem

By Natalie Mazur

Eli Terris' gap year in Israel taught him to get comfortable outside his comfort zone.

Surrounded by four stern-looking men one day in Israel, Eli realized that his morning jog in an Arab village would be cut short. Another day, Eli was hiking through the woods when a woman from a goat farm released her dogs to attack him. He then found himself in an Israeli clinic, being vaccinated against rabies.

Adventurous? Yes. Dangerous? Maybe, though Eli would quickly dismiss the notion that these were negative experiences. In fact, looking back, not only are they magnificent stories to share with friends, but he says that they were also learning experiences. He was able to gain an immediate insight into several cultures: the ways in which Arabs interact with Jews in Israel, and the public health system and clinics there.

Eli Terris, currently a freshman at Brandeis University, decided to take a gap year after graduating from high school. During his year, he set two main goals for himself: to gain a more worldly perspective, and to make a difference in other people?s lives. The program allowed him to do just that. His extensive travels and adventures and the need to assimilate among other cultures forced him to be more aware. Eli also did two weekly service projects in which he visited a woman who had been a victim of a terrorist attack and helped to counsel her, and another in which he visited a woman in an old age home. In this way, Eli was not only traveling for his own benefit, but also felt that he had been able to touch the lives of others and bring joy to the families that he visited.

According to Eli and others like him, taking a gap year is a valuable experience--an opportunity to grow and mature emotionally, outside of the academic sphere. It also is a period of time in which to pursue activities and experiences that cannot be found in the classroom. Not only is it a time for personal growth but also a time for reflection. The educational path from secondary school to college is fast-paced and stressful with barely a second to spare for personal reflection.

By contrast, Eli?s year of travel was eye-opening and life-changing. He set off in September with a program called Kivunim ( to participate in their ?gap year program,? which lasted until the beginning of June. Kivunim means both ?new directions? and ?new intentions? in Hebrew. Over the course of the program, a group of thirty American teenagers studied Hebrew, Arabic and the history of the Middle East while residing in a kibbutz in Jerusalem. Their studies focused on a particular region in Israel for five to six weeks, after which they would travel to each region for two weeks. The program also included community service work in Israel and periodic trips outside of the country to Russia, Lithuania, Spain, Morocco, Jordan, India, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Italy.

One of the most valuable things that Eli learned was to be more trusting of others. In Israel, hitchhiking is a part of the culture and a useful mode of transportation that many people employ. Getting around in this manner meant trusting strangers, believing in the goodness of people, and being able to judge when someone was not trustworthy. He developed more confidence in himself and his capabilities. He learned to trust himself to be able to get through difficult and sometimes even dangerous situations.

?I changed a lot in this past year, and I learned to travel with ease,? Eli explains. He realized that traveling did not always have to be stressful in nature but that even if something didn?t go as planned, it was all part of the adventure. ?Of course you need planning, but sometime it really is as simple as just hopping onto a plane or a bus and just going.? He says that the skills and confidence of being able to travel on your own are very useful throughout life.

The program provided an enjoyable framework of travel and learning, although the intensity of interacting with one group of people for a full year brought several challenges. Life in a kibbutz centers around communal living. ?I had to learn about sacrificing and what it really meant to be a part of a community,? says Eli. He explained that the art of compromise becomes essential. In addition to trying to accommodate everyone in the immediate group, it is also necessary to immerse oneself into the larger community and each country?s culture.

?There were certainly times where I was also put out of my comfort zone, just as I put people out of theirs,? says Eli. But this unease teaches one to become more open-minded and more willing to try and experience new things. Eli explains, ?To truly understand and put into perspective what you?re seeing in a country, you need throw yourself into the experience: try new foods, go to the places where tourists don?t go, and talk with the locals.?

According to Eli, traveling is much more rewarding if you extend your trip beyond the tourist attractions and attempt to gain a deeper understanding of the people and the culture. The program Eli participated in allowed him to gain this understanding through community service, through his lessons on Jewish civilization, Arabic and Hebrew, and through the periodic trips to many different countries.

One of the most valuable take-aways for Eli was a first-hand insight into the interactions and feelings between the Arabs and Jews in Israel. His trip was peaceful, yet he still got a sense of the tensions that underlie the different religious groups in Israel. When surrounded by four Arab men on his morning jog, he realized that even as a foreigner he was not immune to the underlying social dynamics and issues in Israel.

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