So I've been meaning to send another email for a little while now, but there is always something to do (or Hebrew to study here)
I've been in Israel for four weeks now! Wow! I can't believe how time flys. I still feel like I just got here and am still getting used to life. My Hebrew is getting better, but still has a long way to go. We had our third test today and it went pretty well.
A lot has happened since I last emailed, so I'm just going to mention some of the highlights. I've been doing better (but not great) at blogging. Check it out at http://joelportman.blogspot.com. I've got more details about some of what I'm writing hear as well as a lot more such as random observations around Israel, about my roommates, etc.
I've gotten know a number of the people on our program fairly well. I think we've got a very diverse yet cohesive group of participants. We have people from all over the world studying here with a variety of perspectives and a large range of Hebrew knowledge. I have been having Hebrew conversations with some of my friends on a regular basis. While these conversations are limited by my small vocabulary (English helps by filling in) they are definitely helping.
I've been going to the pool a few days a week. It's really nice to have an outdoor pool across the street in the middle of the desert. It's always crowded and I've met a number of people. I had a nice conversation with some elementary and high school age boys and girls. I tried to use my little Hebrew and they worked together to translate my English to Hebrew for them and their Hebrew to English for me. I also met a guy named Gilad who is a student at the University. He decided that we didn't have enough personal interaction with Israelis so he invited a group of us over to his house next week for dinner and to meet his friends.
I've also done karaoke twice with some friends at a place near the dorms. I never actually planned on singing, but it's been fun. They said that they have like 40 Israeli songs and around 4000 English songs.
We've spent a lot of time in the desert. I went to Ayalim, a student village built by and for students as well as a goat farm. I've never seen so many goats in one place. We also did a night hike in the desert that was really amazing under the full moon. I wish my camera could have captured some of the scenery, dark as it was. I finally saw a herd of camels this past weekend. I was really excited.
A few weeks ago a few friends and I went to a beach on the Mediterranean Sea in the city of Ashkolon. We weren't able to stay as long as I would have liked due to the buses stopping for Shabbat, but it was a great time. The beach was beautiful and the water was clear. We're planning on going back in a few weeks.
This past weekend we had a trip to Jerusalem. We went to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial Museum, around the Old City of Jerusalem, and to the Kotel (the Western Wall – the holiest site in Judaism). Yad Vashem was much more powerful than the last time I was in Israel after I had just visited death camps in Poland. The Kotel has also seemed very spiritual and meaningful to me each time I've been there since arriving in Israel. Our group came back to Be'er Sheva on Friday, but I stayed in Jerusalem. After overpaying for a taxi, I met a friend of the family (i.e. her family belongs to my synagogue) who I've never met before and I stood with her for Shabbat. We had a great time at services at an amazing synagogue, Shira Chadasha, over food, and relaxing. I'm hoping to spend more Shabbatot with her in the future.
I've heard several lectures on topics ranging from David Ben-Gurion's ideal vision for Israel to Jewish Philosophy to Beduin Society in Israel and the Middle East. They've been really interesting and I've learned a lot. I've been trying to go to as many activities with our program as possible from lectures to a potluck dinner to movies. We even went bowling. They had all American equipment that was old and I'm pretty sure the lane wasn't entirely flat. It was a lot of fun though, even though shoes cost less than $1 and a game was about $8. Last night, I went paintballing on a course that the Israeli Defense Forces sometimes practice on. I've never gone paintballing before and it was a lot of fun.
Last week we walked to a monument on the city limits of Be'er Sheva that was built to honor members of the Palmach who fought in Israel's War of Independence in 1948. You could see the whole city and we watched the sun set over Be'er Sheva and the desert. On Monday we went around Be'er Sheva with a Professor who studies and teaches Negev Desert development. He showed us several places around the city including a British World War I cemetery and where the Headquarters of the Israeli Defense Forces Southern Command is.
We have two weeks left of Ulpan an approximately 11 day break and then the semester starts. I am starting to work on figuring out what classes I will be taking during our semester. We had our academic orientation today and I am working on figuring out my classes. We'll take four classes plus Hebrew. Right now, I am looking at a track called "Peace Studies and Regional Security". You can read more about the actual classes on my blog.
I've heard from a number of people concerns about security. The situation has luckily been rather peaceful while I've been in Israel. There have been a few rocket attacks from Gaza into the Negev, but don't worry – they've never made it anywhere close to where I am.
I have uploaded a number of pictures since my last email. You can see all of my albums at http://picasaweb.google.com/mazeltovjp.
Tomorrow we are leaving at 3:30 a.m. (!) to go hike up Masada for sunrise and we are then going to the Ein Gedi spring and on to the Dead Sea, all before returning to Be'er Sheva before Shabbat. It's going to be a fun, busy, and tiring day.
That's all from me for now. Stay in touch. I'll be blogging and will email in a few weeks.