Alone, lost, and terrified; that’s how the first night of the greatest trip of my life began.
As I hopelessly walked the streets of Kiryat Ata, Israel back on that chilly February evening, searching for Kibbutz Romat Yochanan the night sky opened up and the tepid rain began to drench my luggage and I. No jacket, no cell phone, and no grasp of the Hebrew language, the only thought running through my head, “Seriously? You gave up the comforts of home for this?” As an American Jew from Northern Virginia I knew almost nothing of northern Israel, and no one who lived there – it was the most helpless situation of my entire life.
That was until a fruit vendor named Eli saw me aimlessly walking the streets. He handed me a succulent orange and said the most comforting words these ears have ever heard (in English) “Can I help you my friend?” Shocked by both the English and hospitality I told him of my dire situation and without hesitation he called me a taxi, fifteen minutes later I arrived at the gates of the Hebrew Ulpan at Kibbutz Romat Yochanan. The worst night of my life was over, and the best five months of my young life were about to begin.
My post college days were filled with endless possibilities; no job, no girlfriend, no real responsibilities – I wanted to embark upon an adventure – something those who went directly to a cubicle may never understand or experience. I wanted to go on a journey with meaning, and as a person looking to dig deeper into my Jewish heritage the Hebrew Kibbutz Ulpan was exactly what I was looking for.
Kibbutz Romat Yochanan is a fully functioning, living, breathing Kibbutz. With everything from a kindergarten to a pub, a super market to a swimming pool, and plentiful fruit fields to a plastics producing factory, there is nothing the ‘kibbutzniks’ need that they don’t have access to on the kibbutz. Some back in America may call it a socialist utopia, but the over 800 residents of Romat Yochanan call it home.
As an ulpanist my time on the Kibbutz was split up between working as a cook three days a week and taking Hebrew classes the other three; as well as dance and yoga lessons, training with an ex-military commando, receiving hands on knowledge of the history of Israel, visiting some of the worlds most magnificent and ancient cities, eating new foods, celebrating holidays, getting my butt kicked weekly by seven year olds in soccer, falling in love, taking hikes through some of the most luxurious country side I’ve ever seen, and maybe most importantly connecting with people who came to the Ulpan from fifteen different countries across the world.
The opportunity to live in close quarters with forty-five people who came from Russia, Argentina, Canada, Japan, Cuba, Columbia, South Africa, France, UK, Australia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Belarus, Israel and the USA is an amazing experience that few people on this earth get to truly experience. At first the culture and language barriers were enormous – and although Google Translate helped –it wasn’t until we all began to speak and understand Hebrew that barriers were crossed, friendships blossomed and life lessons learned.
Some of us were there for the experience and adventure, others because they simply needed a break or a change of pace from their home life, but most of the Ulpanists were there because they had made Aaliyah (immigrated to Israel) or decided to join the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Despite the numerous reasons to come to Israel, the different cultures, views of Judaism, the high or low level of maintenance a person needed, it was truly the adventure of a lifetime.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not all a fairy tale world. The struggles that come with living in close quarters in a foreign land are multiple; language differences, arguments, roommate troubles, homesickness, etc. But in the end the good always outweighed the bad situations. You learn to live as a big family; you realize the beauty of every day, and for whatever the reason you came to Israel you’re all in it together. There are few other places, if any, which can give you the lessons and experience, like that of a Kibbutz.
Now three months removed from the Ulpan I have asked myself constantly, “What did I take away from Israel?” I went from being able to only say, “Shalom, manishma?” to earning the seventh highest verbal score out of my Ulpan. Before Israel I could barely make pasta, afterward I am confident and capable to make a vast array of salads and mid-eastern dishes, as well as some mouth watering desserts. I went in expecting to only learn about Judaism in Israel, and left with knowledge of what it’s like to be Jewish all over the world, from Russia to Columbia to Japan. I keep asking myself what I took away; only to discover the list keeps growing, the changes keep appearing every day. My life has changed for the better, the growth is immeasurable, and my days seem to keep improving. All thanks to a fruit vendor named Eli who showed me how to get to Kibbutz Romat Yochanan.