Crossing Borders
Independence Day
Seeds of Change
Life in the Crossfire
American in Israel
Kids Speak Out

American in Israel
Israel, My Home
by Ezra Billinkoff, 16, Ottsville, Pennsylvania

Ezra learns to herd goats at an agricultural reserve called Naot Kedumim (nah-OAT ked-oo-MEEM).

Photo courtesty of Ezra Billinkoff
How do four months in a foreign country, studying ancient history, religion, and culture sound? It sounded good to me, so I decided to travel to Israel as a student. I attended the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) High School in Jerusalem as part of a four-month exchange program sponsored by the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY).

My class, which consisted of 31 American students and one student from Bermuda, studied Judaism and Jewish history. As a group, we lived in a youth hostel in the center of Jerusalem.

On September 28, 2000, one month after we had arrived, violence broke out between Palestinians and Israelis. By the end of the day, one Israeli soldier had been killed and several other civilians had been injured. We had no idea that these seemingly small clashes would become part of what is now more than 18 months of intense fighting.

The outbreak of the violence was upsetting to everyone on my trip, including me. The core of the violence was only 10 minutes away from us, in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The situation in Israel changes by the hour, and it did when we were there, too. It affected how much we were able to travel for our classes.

Each morning we attended an ulpan (OOL-pahn), an intensive Hebrew course. We then went into our Jewish history class. This three-hour course was designed to teach us as much about Jewish history as possible, and was the main reason we all traveled to Israel. We studied everything from Adam and Eve to the present-day crisis in Israel.

We also had several tiyulim (TEE-yoo-LEEM), or field trips, each week, sometimes lasting a full day. We would travel by bus to an area and learn about the historic events that took place there. One place we visited was Tel Gezer (tel geh-ZAIR), which was a bustling civilization about 4,000 years ago.
American teenagers belonging to a San Francisco-based youth group touring Israel view south Lebanon from the Israeli kibbutz of Misgav Am, near the Israel-Lebanon border. (AP/Wide World)
Along with our daily tiyulim, we would also have week-long tiyulim. We visited several remarkable places. One week, we traveled and hiked through the Negev Desert. The entire southern half of Israel is a desert. Living out of a bus, we hiked all day, crawling through caverns, scaling down cliffs, and sleeping under the stars.

Some of our tiyulim were canceled or delayed because we would have had to travel to or through unsafe areas. By watching our Israeli friends, we realized that even with the immediate threat of attack, Israelis continue with everyday activities, as they have in the 54 years since their declaration of independence. They inspired us to have confidence and faith in the statement that "this too shall pass."

Recently, I have been asked by several organizations to speak about the ongoing violence and conflict between Palestinians and Israelis currently taking place in Israel. The fact is, any struggle involving The People of the Middle East is very upsetting to me. The people of the Middle East are my people, and I will support them always. I also support continued efforts to make peace with the Palestinians.

The crisis in Israel is very complex. Often, it is easy to agree or sympathize with one side. It is important to remember that the current violence in Israel is a small piece of a conflict that has existed for hundreds of years. For Americans, it is important that we educate ourselves on this conflict, and learn the story from both sides of the argument. I urge you to look for information about the conflict that does not necessarily give one opinion or the other.

I have grown very attached to the state of Israel. Upon returning to the United States, I realized that I had gained a renewed sense of Judaism. Each day, I wake up and regret not being able to see the sun glowing over the golden city of Jerusalem and I miss Israel. As soon as I get the chance, I will return.

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