Kindly edited by Lauren Zink and Emily Settle. Republished in the October 2010 OTZMA Newsletter and the Masa Israel blog.

Somehow a month has already passed us by. In that time, we’ve been taught about our history and our faith, helped each other overcome our fears, “rode” camels, floated in the Dead Sea, practiced yoga, attended a rally, hiked to a waterfall, moved into merkaz klita (absorption center) Beit Canada, began studying Hebrew together, watched the sun rise over the Old City in Jerusalem, welcomed in the new year, ate massive amounts of food with our new host families, celebrated a couple birthdays (Jason Winkler and Shauna Gamsey), and witnessed the serenity of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve become a family.

Our introduction to Israel was fast-paced, exciting and highly varied. On our very first group hike, we helped fellow group members overcome their fears of very, very tall ladders. If it hadn’t been for a full moon, we would have had the chance to truly see the stars near a Bedouin tent – after quickly “riding” camels in a circle. The Dead Sea’s salt stung our cuts and our eyes after some of us decided that dunking our heads in the water was a good idea. Despite the pain, the Sea, and the nearby spa, were a wonderful experience – we especially loved lying out and swimming in the pool. We lived on a kibbutz, where we were fortunate enough to celebrate our first weekend together. Abiding by the Shabbat traditions we were able to kick back and relax. One morning we were even taught yoga by our very own OTZMAnik yoga instructor, Nikki Avershal. When the sun went down on Saturday night, we said Havdallah prayers in a circle on the lawn underneath a tree. It was the perfect way to end our first Shabbat in Israel.

After the candle was extinguished, we had a few hours to explore the nightlife of Jerusalem. Many of us attended a rally in honor of the twenty-fourth birthday of Gilad Shalit – an Israeli soldier that has been held prisoner in the Gaza Strip by Hamas since 2006. Mere days after getting off the plane, we were able to witness firsthand the affect that the conflict has had on the lives of those who live here. The Israelis in the crowd expressed their kinship with Gilad and his family, saying that in Israel, he could be anyone’s son.

Within a week, we moved into our new home located minutes from a beautiful Ashkelon beach. For the next few months we are living in merkaz klita Beit Canada, a very lively absorption center filled with more children than adults. Most of the residents are olim chadashim (new immigrants) from Ethiopia. They brought their own unique culture with them to Israel – which they gave us a small sample of when some of the girls performed a traditional dance, and then we all sang along to Shakira’s Waka Waka. A few days later we held a small carnival for the children of the Beit Canada, full of games made from items we could find cheaply in Ashkelon or around the merkaz klita.

We were soon split into two classes for Ulpan, as some of us needed assistance with the basics of the aleph-bet while others could pass rather well for Israeli if they wanted to. Our teachers Miri (aleph class) and Nana (bet class) have been helpful and entertaining throughout our studies so far. They even screened two movies in the gan yeladim (kindergarten classroom). While those of us who had only just begun our Hebrew studies had difficulty understanding what was said, we were given more exposure to Israelis speaking in their native tongue. Unfortunately for those who actually do understand Hebrew, it seems that the kindergarten television is set to “Alvin and the Chipmunks” mode – all of the voices came out incredibly high pitched.

On the erev of Rosh Hashanah, we left quite early for a seminar in Jerusalem. There we learned about Selichot – how we as Jews atone for our sins.

On thoughts of her own past year, Lauren Zink said, “It is around this point according to the Jewish Religion that G-d decides if you are going to live for another year, or if this one will be your last. When thinking about myself and everything I have done this year, I have to say that as far as what I did right, being in Israel at that moment was certainly something I am very proud of.”

We ended the morning by eating bagels and watching the sun rise over the Old City.

For Rosh Hashanah, we traveled to our host families, our homes away from home. Some of us have family in the country, so there was no need for OTZMA to assign us an adopted family. Others joined their fellow OTZMAnikim on their trips to meet their families. But most of us met new people, traveled to new cities, stayed in new homes and ate new food. We were graciously adopted by these families that knew very little about us other than that we needed homes for the holidays and the occasional Shabbat. Those of us who were assigned families were given a glimpse at the second part of the program. In a few months time, we will end up living near our host families in our Partnership 2000 (P2K) cities.

Erin Leibowitz spoke enthusiastically about her family in Ofakim. “My family in אופקים is truly amazing. They are of Moroccan and Iraqi descent and they run an ethnic catering business. Osi (my adoptive mom) is such a cool woman.”

During our most recent seminar in Jerusalem, we learned about Yom Kippur through six different lenses. We learned about the torah through our bodies in yoga, and the prophet Jonah through texts and art. We deconstructed prayer and the confession. We looked at what repentance means in the eyes of different AA groups. We delved into the secular side of Israel – what it means to be nonreligious in a Jewish country. Finally, we discussed why tradition plays such an important role in Israeli society.

The following day was Yom Kippur and we each reflected on our year in our own ways – some prayed in synagogue, others around the Old City and some just slept off the exhausting day before.

Most of us have been to Israel before, either with family or with Taglit (Birthright). Some of us have family here, others didn’t know a soul before they stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion International. Some planned months in advance for this trip, others mere days. In the end, we’re all here for many different reasons and with many different motivations. We come from diverse heritages and have rich personal histories. But as different as our lives may have been before we arrived here, we have all come to share in a love for Israel, its people, and helping those around us whether it be other Israelis or members of our new OTZMA family.