Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Very Long Message

Shalom m'Yisrael !(Hello from Israel!),

My time here in Israel has been great. I had planned on writing my first weekend here in Israel, but time got away from me. We arrived in Tel-Aviv slightly early after a great flight (even though I didn't sleep more than 30 minutes). We then made our way down through the desert to Beer-Sheva and moved into our dorms at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

My group is actually made up of several smaller groups. There is the Overseas Student Program with about 20-25 students from across the United States as well as Mexico, Kenya, and Norway. We are all here for either a semester or the entire year. There is also a group of about 7-10 (so far, but this will grow to about 30) people who are here for the year in an intensive Masters of Arts in Middle East Studies program. Additionally, there is a group of 20-30 people here from Germany learning Hebrew with us.

My dorm isn't too bad, but definitely isn't as nice as the University of Denver. There are four rooms in my suite. One of them is empty and the other two are both Israelis whose English isn't too bad. They are cool guys, but aren't exactly the cleanest.

Because I know some people will ask, there is a gate to the dorm complex in which I live and it is monitored by guards. The University is fenced in and you have to enter through one of several gates by showing your University ID to an armed guard. There are also guards walking around campus with oozies. We had a meeting with the head of security for the campus who went over a number of things with us. The University has over 200 guards and it is safe to ride in buses and in taxis.

Currently, I am in the Ulpan program – an intense Hebrew study during which we spend three hours a day, five days a week learning Hebrew in Hebrew. I am in the second level of classes and have definitely had a lot of homework so far. Each day we also have an activity ranging from lectures to trips around Beer-Sheva or the Negev (desert in the southern 60%ish of Israel) to an Israeli movie. The rest of the day is free or spent doing homework. The Ulpan lasts for six weeks then we have approximately 10 days off followed by the semester. We have not yet signed up for our classes for the semester.

I spent this past weekend in Jerusalem for Shabbat and Tisha B'Av (a Jewish holiday/fast day commemorating the destruction of the temple). I also was able to see Stuart, my brother, who is in Jerusalem until Tuesday with USY, the Conservative Jewish youth group, on the same trip I was on. I was able to spend much of Shabbat with him and also saw one of his counselors who I know and my friend Matan who was in my group to Israel in 2005. For those of you who are interested, I davened (prayed) Kabbalat Shabbat Friday night at the Kotel (Western Wall) with a group who my friend said he believes to be settlers from the West Bank and did Eicha for Tisha B'Av in the City of David before returning to the Kotel, which was quite the sight to see.

I have posted my pictures thus far online at They will also be online shortly on Facebook. If the pictures do not have captions when you see them, they will shortly. There are a lot of pictures of my dorm and my room (which was definitely dirty upon my arrival).

Below, you will find a brief summary of what I have done each day in Israel thus far. You can skip this if you wish.

The Flight – I was asked to help with making a Minyan (prayer group of 10) for Minha (the afternoon service) at the airport in Newark before we left and then again for Ma'ariv (the evening service) on the plane. El Al has the best safety demonstration video as well as great food, just fyi.

July 31 – We arrived in Israel and moved into our dorms. We got our cell phones and met the director of the Overseas Student Program.

August 1-2 – We went into the Desert and did a hike through the Ein Ovdat wadi and learned a little about the geography of Israel. We then visited David Ben-Gurion's home in the desert and went to the kibbutz where we spent the weekend for orientation. We did a number of "getting to know you" activities in addition to learning how the program would work and swimming in a pool – which is weird when all you see around you is desert.

August 3 – We learned about dorm procedures, security, student life on campus, and other fun stuff. We were interviewed for placement in different levels for the Ulpan. They are aleph, aleph plus, bet, gimel, and dalet. I am in aleph plus. We then went to a mall to go shopping for things that people had forgotten and for some food. The mall is called "The Big". Next to it is "The One". It's weird…

August 4 – After Ulpan we had an orientation to Israel going over pieces of history and cultural adaptation. We met a number of Israeli students and learned about different opportunities on and around campus for activities and involvement.

August 5 – After Ulpan we had a lecture about Zionism and Environmentalism and how they relate to each other and affect Israel for better or worse. It was very interesting. Each week we have a different lecture by a professor who is teaching at least one course we are offered both to learn about the topic and also to help us decide whether or not to take that particular class. That evening we saw the movie Yossi and Jager about relationships between soldiers and the First Lebanon War.

August 6 – After Ulpan we learned about our health insurance Jand found out about different volunteering opportunities that we have. I signed up for several including walking dogs in a shelter, teaching Beduin students English, and helping with a group that does projects ranging from promoting environmental activism to planting trees to helping advance Beduin life to teaching English. We'll see what pans out. After all of that we went to the Old City of Beer-Sheva for an outdoor art and music festival.

August 7 – After Ulpan we went to the Old City to the weekly Beduin Market. They seemed to have a little bit of everything on sale. When we got back a friend and I went exploring the streets around our dorm and we found a number of small grocery stores, falafel and shwarma stands, and fruit and vegetable stands. Beer-Sheva is definitely a Middle Eastern city.

August 8-10 – As mentioned previously, I spent the weekend in Jerusalem. Friday night I got set up for dinner with a wealthy American donor for an organization in Israel ( at the King David Hotel. The dinner went from 9:30 to 12:45 and I had the largest (veal) steak I've ever seen it was amazing. In addition to what I already mentioned, I prayed twice at the Kotel (Western Wall). It was great.

Other points to note:
- There are a lot of stray cats (and some dogs) all over the place here.
- The Israeli students are actually finishing up their semester with the next few weeks being their final period. Their schedule got messed up with two different (one professor and one student) strikes this past year. Many of these students will be moving out of the dorms. Their new semester will not begin until mid-November.
- The school week in Israel is Sunday – Thursday. It is going to take some getting used to.
- The Kotel (Western Wall) is the holiest place in Judaism and it is a tradition to place notes to G-d in the wall. If anyone wants to mail me a note or email me a note, I can put it in the wall for you the next time I go.

Please be sure to stay in touch. My future emails will probably not be this long. My address again is:

Joel Portman
c/o Overseas Student Program
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
P.O. Box 653
Student Union Building Room 235
84105 Beer-Sheva Israel

and my cell phone number from the United States is 011972526092556. You can also IM me on AIM at jwbs06 or Skype me at joel.portman. This email and perhaps other notes will be online at

I look forward to being in touch.

Lihitraot (Until next time),

Joel Portman

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