Sunday, September 28, 2008

Email: A message before Rosh Hashanah

Shalom chaverim (Hello friends),

A lot has happened since I last wrote. I’ve been on a week+ break and traveled around Israel (and a day in Jordan), I’ve started the semester here, I’ve been preparing for the Jewish High Holy Days, it rained for the first time, and more.

From September 11 – 20, we had a break between the end of the Ulpan and the start of the Fall Semester. It was an adventure traveling around Israel from the South to the North and spending a day in Jordan. I’ve attached a full description of my break in case you are interested, but here are some of the highlights:
- The beach in Eilat
- Riding a camel in the Jordanian desert through the great red canyons of Petra
- Visiting the Baha’I Gardens in Haifa
- Getting on the wrong train and then stuck at a train station in the middle of nowhere
- Joining a group of Israeli school children for a night tour of the old city of Akko (Acre) in Hebrew
- A really sketchy youth hostel in Akko
- Touring the Israeli Supreme Court and Knesset Buildings
- Shabbat at the Kotel (Western Wall)

Our semester started well. I have completed the first week of class and so far, all of my classes seem interesting and the professors seem really good and knowledgeable. I moved up to the “Bet” level of Hebrew after getting an A in Ulpan. I am taking four classes in addition to Hebrew:
- Critical Decisions in the History of the State of Israel
- Jewish Identity and Contemporary Issues
- Arms Control and the Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East
- International Terrorism and Guerilla Warfare
I am also sitting in a class (but not getting credit for it) as I am interested in the topic but am out of credit hours. It is Environmental and Natural Resource Issues in Israel and the Middle East.

I spent this past Shabbat in Be’er Sheva. Friday night, I, along with four other students, joined our Jewish Identity professor and his family for Shabbat services and dinner. I went back to the synagogue (45 minute walk) for services Saturday morning and joined another family for lunch. On the walk there something crazy happened: it rained. The rain was unusual as it doesn't usually rain in Israel until after Sukkot, the harvest festival/holiday, and that isn't for another few weeks (although it is later this year due to a leap month in the Hebrew calendar).

I had class today and now we are off until Thursday for Rosh Hashanah. This coming weekend our Overseas Student Program has a trip for us to the Galilee in the north of Israel. We have class until next Wednesday when we are off for Yom Kippur on Wednesday and Thursday. We are then off until October 22 for Sukkot/Fall Break. Then we actually have class for the rest of my time in Israel. We have such a crazy schedule…

For my next break, I was planning on going to Egypt for a few days. However, after a lot of thought (e.g. recent kidnappings, Israeli government travel warnings, and my Intl Terrorism professor basically telling me that I was a goner by going through the Sinai), I have decided against it. Now we are looking to traveling around Israel more – Tel-Aviv, Tiberias, Sea of the Galilee, Jerusalem for Simchat Torah, who knows.

I am spending the next few days in Jerusalem for Rosh Hashanah with a Conservative Rabbi. I am looking forward to my High Holy Day celebration in Jerusalem and hope to end up in Jerusalem for Yom Kippur as well. As we approach the high holy day season with a focus of repentance, I ask you for your forgiveness for anything I may have done against you this past year. I am striving to improve for the year to come.

There is a lot more to write, but you can check out my blog ( for a lot of that. I have also attached a long description of my last break, as I mentioned, as well as a picture of me and my brother Stuart in Jerusalem in August.

Stay in touch and all the best wishes for a happy and healthy new year!

L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu,

Joel Portman

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Me & My Brother

Here is a picture of me and Stuart in Jerusalem in August:

Shabbat and Some Reflections

Shalom! Shavua Tov!

Today something crazy happened: It rained! (But, more on that later.)

Last night I went to a professor's home and met him with another student and we went to services at the same synagogue I had been to in Be'er Sheva before (Beit Knesset Rambam). We went back to his house after services and had dinner with his family along with three other students who joined us. He had invited us over as he wants to meet his students and give us the opportunity to get to know him and his family. He is very nice as is his family - they have 5 girls and 1 boy from age 7 to age 20.

This morning I went back to the same synagogue and then went to lunch with a family there with whom I had had Shabbat dinner on a previous week, the Green's. When I left for the 45 minute walk to the other side of Be'er Sheva, there were a lot of clouds in the sky. It started misting/drizzling shortly after I left the dorms. I was amazed. Rain! I haven't seen a lot of clouds here, let alone rain since before I left the U.S. The drizzling stopped until I was about 15 minutes away from the synagogue and then it actually started raining. It was really nice until I realized that I was getting really wet. It also seemed that as the water fell from the sky, so did the dirt and I have a lot of little dirt spots that somehow need to come out of my nice white shirt. The rain was unusual as it doesn't usually rain in Israel until after Sukkot, the harvest festival/holiday, and that isn't for another few weeks (although it is later this year do to a leap month in the Hebrew calendar). Anyways, Shabbat services and lunch were very enjoyable. I also got several potential invitations to other families.

I really like listening to prayers and different songs, especially for Shabbat. I found a great site today that you should check out:

Lately, I have been trying to do a better job of staying in touch with friends from home. I have talked to a number of people on AIM and Skype. It has been good. If I haven't talked to you recently, let's make it happen.

I have also been doing some thinking and reflecting in preparation for Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur - the New Year 5769. I will soon post some of my New Year's Resolutions.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Pictures from Break

I have posted my pictures from break last week. There are a lot of them (about 260) and I only put limited captions to just give an idea of what the pictures are of. Let me know if you have any questions.

You can view the pictures here.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The First Week & Some Observations

Today completes my first week of the semester here at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. It is also the completion of my being in Israel for eight weeks. Things are going well. We had a toast to the New Year - Rosh Hashanah5769. I have set my class schedule and am also planning on sitting in and auditing a class called "Topics in Environmental and Natural Resources Issues in Israel and the Middle East". It sounds really interesting and the Professor is very knowledgable and very interesting, I just don't have enough room to take more classes for credit.

Anyway, a few observations:

The Israeli students are now done with finals and don't have class until November 12(?). The High Holy Days are right around the corner. The campus is basically deserted. The pool is pretty baren and some of the coffee stands seem to be closed for the "summer".

With the way our schedule works and the way Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot fall out on the calendar, I am basically not in class for a normal full week now until around the 22nd of October.

I can definately tell that fall is here now, and I don't particularly like it. I love summer. The temperature is starting to get cooler, especially at night. There is a breeze now and some clouds in the sky occasionally. I hope the leaves on the trees change colors though, but I don't think that they will.

Break One: Ulpan - Semester

Below is a description of my activities during my first break in my Overseas Program. Some days have more detail than others and overall, this is a fairly long description (6 pages typed), so feel free to skim and skip around. I hope that this provides answers to many of you who have asked what I did during the break. The break was from September 11 -20.

Thursday, September 11

I just hung around the dorms, taking it easy. The German students left today and a spent a decent amount of time with some of them. It was sad to see these friends leave. Not a lot of the American students spent a lot of time with them and it was definitely a unique experience learning about Germany and German students in Israel.

I also spent some time looking up articles and watching videos about commemorating September 11, 2001.

Friday, September 12

Today we left for our vacation. I went with Aaron and Nick from my group. Aaron and I had planned on traveling around and invited Nick as he didn’t have any plans. We got on a bus from our dorm, showing up right before the bus. After arriving at the central bus station, our adventure really began. We were waiting in line for a bus to Eilat when a security guard came by and told everyone to leave (in Hebrew of course, we had to ask around to try and find out what was happening). An unidentified bag was found in the station and the police had been called to look at it as a potential bomb threat. We had to wait for over an hour. Once we got on a bus, I discovered that you can apparently reserve seats on the bus to Eilat. I lucked out with a seat, but two people on the bus refused to get up and our driver had to get a security guard to take care of them.

In Eilat, we got to our youth hostel, which seemed fairly decent, but we had to call a few times to actually find it. The beach in Eilat was nice, busy, hot, clear water, but was rocky with coarse sand and trash in the water – cigarettes, cups, etc. The beach wasn’t as nice as I remembered it being, but it eventually started to grow on me.

At night we walked along the Promenade/Boardwalk and decided to go to Jordan on Saturday instead of Sunday. I did some thinking and concluded that this was my first time going out and traveling alone (i.e. not family vacation or with an organized group). It feels kind of weird and nerve wracking sometimes.

Saturday, September 13

We got up at 6:30 a.m. to catch a cab to the border crossing at 7:30 a.m. We arrived at the border at 7:45 a.m. and there was a very long line waiting for the border to open at 8:00 a.m. We were behind a U.S. church group. It took over an hour to get through the Israeli side of the border as Passport Control was intense for some people. We paid the exit tax and converted money to Jordanian Dinars. In the area between borders, there were fences, guard towers, and mines. Security on the Jordanian side was much more lax.

We got a taxi to drive us to Petra, which we bartered down from 45 JD to 40 JD per person. It was much more expensive than we had thought it would be. Our driver took us to Aqaba, pulled over to the side of the road and soon another taxi showed up. We switched taxis as the drivers spoke to each other in Arabic, but not to us and off we went. On the way to Petra, we saw a lot of hitchhikers, people in a variety of dress, sheep farms, camels crossing the road, donkeys on the road, and a beautiful (and changing) desert landscape.

We got to Petra which was beautiful. We were constantly bombarded to buy a horse ride (2-10 JD), donkey ride (ignored the price), and camel rides. After much thought we decided to do the camel rides. How could we pass up the opportunity to ride camels in the Jordanian Desert in the historic Nabathean Capital City of Petra as traders had done thousands of years ago? We got the price down to 8 JD from 30 JD. It was fun, but the ride didn’t cover nearly the distance we had thought that it would. In Petra, I saw amazing landscapes, old buildings, Indiana Jones (just kidding), and more. There were a lot of Beduin kids who tried to sell us stuff as well and people from all over the world there. We saw everything except for the Monastery which is a 2.5 hour trip there, looking out, and back down. I think we were in Petra for about the perfect amount of time. I’m not going to write too much about actually being in Petra, my pictures can do the talking.

On the way back from Petra (We had wanted to leave @ 5:30 p.m. but our taxi driver asked for 4:30 p.m. so he could be home with his family for the end of the day of Ramadan as they ate at 7:00 p.m.) We got back to the taxi around 4:10 p.m. and after heading towards town and on to the border, our driver pulled over to the side of the road, got out, didn’t say anything, and came back a few minutes later. We were confused. It turns out that he went into a store and bought some traditional Jordanian bread. It was bigger and thinner than a tortilla. He gave us some it try and it was really good. We made it back to the border much faster than it took to get to Petra in a little over an hour and made it through the border with no problems.

We ate dinner in the mall on the beach and walked along the boardwalk. On the boardwalk, we met an Israeli who had lived in Alaska for four years (weird…). After going back to the youth hostel, we spent some time on the porch looking out on the city.

Sunday, September 14

We went to the Eilat Underwater Aquarium. It was more expensive than I expected, but amazing. They have a great aquarium with coral and the coolest fishes ever. They also have an underwater observatory that lets you go under the sea and observe the coral reef and the fish, etc. The colors and variety of animal and plant life is really quite amazing. We also saw the shark pool and a diver feeding Red Sea fish and coral fish as well as a pearl taken out of an oyster (from Japan…). After this we went to the bus station and headed back to Be’er Sheva to relax for the evening and finish planning the next leg of the trip.

Monday, September 15

We kept delaying when we were going to leave Be’er Sheva for the North, originally planning on early on the morning and finally deciding on mid afternoon. After all, if we are on vacation, why rush? We had planned to take the train from Be’er Sheva to Haifa. There is a train station near the University and we went there, but it was closed. Apparently they were doing work on the lines. We then took a bus to the Old City, but the train station was also closed there so we decided to take a bus. There are no direct buses between Be’er Sheva and Haifa though. We took a bus from Be’er Sheva to Tel-Aviv and then took a different bus from Tel-Aviv to Haifa. Our directions to the youth hostel were from a train station and there was one next to the central bus station. After discovering that our directions to the youth hostel were from a different train station (who knew there were three in Haifa?), we took a bus to the train station and walked to the hostel. The hostel was actually really nice and while the area was fine, it kind of looked sketchy because of the buildings were old and many shops were closed for the night.

At the hostel we coincidentally met Peggy, one of the German students who was traveling in Israel for two weeks and her friend who came to Israel to meet her and travel. We took the Carmelite (Israel’s only metro/subway – and it is underutilized from my observation) up Mt. Carmel took get dinner. We ate at a cool bagel place and then Peggy introduced us to frozen yogurt that basically squishes frozen fresh fruit and a yogurt concentrate into an amazing concoction. I had one with peaches, pineapple, strawberries, mango, and mixed berries. We then went to a live music jam session at a Pub near our hostel.

Tuesday, September 16

This was probably our craziest day of adventure.

We woke up in Haifa and saw Peggy and her friend before walking towards the Carmelite (we stopped at a bakery on the way for breakfast). At the tp of the mountain new started walking towards the Bahai Gardens. While we didn’t know exactly where we were going, we had a pretty good idea. As we asked for directions though, everyone told us it was a long walk and to take a taxi. Eventually we decided that we must have passed the Gardens and we got a cab that took us two turns and to an entrance. He took us to the Lower Entrance, which while cool, is not where we needed to be for tours (which we hadn’t prearranged as we were supposed to).

We walked around the lower gardens and it was beautiful. I kept thinking that I would like to see the Baha’i Gardens with my family, wishing they could all be there to see it. We saw the Gardens on the bridge and then they closed that area and opened the gardens by the Shrine (the actual Shrine was closed for several weeks for cleaning). Then we talked to a guard named Tahal about finding water to drink and he told us where to find a pipe that comes out of the ground that “is very good to drink from” and the Baha’i guards drink there. We did too. Then we talked to the Baha’i guards.

We went to wait at a bus stop for a bus to take us to the top. There, we met an Israeli lady who told us that we were crazy for studying politics in Israel. The bus never came so we took a Sheirut (shared taxi/mini-bus) up to the top of the Gardens. We had definitely walked right by them without seeing any sign. We went to a random gate and asked a guard about the entrance to the tours. Apparently we were at the right place. He checked a list, asked if we had a reservation (we didn’t), let us in anyway, and we joined an English speaking tour that was just beginning. It couldn’t have worked out better. We actually toured the upper and lower gardens this time and learned about the Baha’is. It was a good tour. We then went back to the youth hostel to pick up our backpacks that we had stored there. The whole ordeal took about 4.5 hours. Most people are only at the gardens for 1-1.5 hours.

We took a train to Bat Galim in Haifa to meet up with Peggy on the beach. We had an issue though – we couldn’t find the beach. Now, this is a little strange since Haifa is on the coast. The only beach we found was a private beach. That didn’t help us. We played rock, paper, scissors (literally) and thus concluded that we were giving up on the beach and going to Akko (Acre) earlier in the afternoon. We went to the bus station where a guy told us it was cheaper to take a train. We went to the train station and were told to take the second train to the North. We did. Apparently it was the wrong train. We got off at a station that was in a small town between Akko and Haifa. The only person who was there that we could attempt to figure out what was going on was a guard who didn’t know English. Eventually we figured out that the next train to Akko was in three hours so instead we waited for an hour for a train back to Haifa and then took a train for the 30 minute ride to Akko.

In Akko, we took a non-taxi (i.e. the guy told us he was a taxi but drove an un-marked white van) to our youth hostel. It was the sketchiest place I’ve ever stayed. It is called Wallied’s Akko Gate Hostel. We were kind of scared there. The building didn’t look so nice, not to mention clean. There were two bathrooms and one of the toilets didn’t have a seat. Hmm… It was the only hostel in Akko though. From this we conclude that you should never stay in Akko.

We left the hostel as quickly as possible and got falafel. Akko is mostly Arab so I asked if it was Kosher. The guy was really nice and then when I was finished eating called me over and after searching a pile of papers, happily showed me his Kashrut certificate. After dinner, we walked over to the Visitor’s Center (which was closed) and looked at a map of the Old City of Akko. While there a car drove up with two religious Jews who were guides in the city. They told us to be careful about walking around Akko at night by ourselves, especially since it was Ramadan. They said that there were two busloads of Israeli school children coming to Akko to do a night tour of the city and that we were welcome to join them. There was just one thing – the tour was in Hebrew.

We decided that we may as well go (Akko isn’t exactly hoppin’ at night) and while waiting, I bought a large bottle of water (the water in the hostel looked funky) and saw a bunch of guys gambling. The tour we did, while awkward at first, ended up being really cool and a great experience. We walked along the ancient city walls, went to the port, an old synagogue, and several other places. The kids (13-14 year old boys) were learning about Judaism. We had no idea what was going on. Our Hebrew wasn’t that good. Eventually some of the kids started talking to us, trying Hebrew and we also tried Hebrew and a few of them knew English so they asked each other to translate for one another. It was quite interesting. Some thought we were police traveling with them (an interesting dynamic that I won’t go into here). Some gave us some of their snacks that they had brought from home and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Later, they prayed and then their school had snacks and the kids gave us some. We thanked the guides and attempted to make our way back to the hostel.

On our way back to the youth hostel, we got continuously lost in the alleyways which were a bit frightening at times. We didn’t know any Arabic and most didn’t know English. We’d ask for the hostel and no one would understand, but if you mentioned Wallied, everyone knew. I want to know more about this guy… When we got back to the hostel we met some of the other guests, particularly a guy from D.C. named David. Wallied moved us up from a room with eight people to a room with four. I felt a bit safer there after that.

Wednesday, September 17

We got up and booked it out of the hostel. We went to the Visitor’s Center to get tickets to the sightseeing areas in the area and on the way stopped by a bakery that was opening up and each bought 2 fresh baked, still warm pitas from 1 shekel. What a deal. We got tickets and an audio guide and saw the Citadel and then (without audio guide) a museum about an Israeli artist from the area. We also saw the Akko Prison (not much to see as they are doing renovations), a museum about life in pre-state Israel focusing on how people lived in Northern Israel, the city market , and the Templar’s Tunnels. We also walked along the city walls and port again in the daytime.

We had originally planned on going to Rosh Hanikra as well (the very Northern point of Israel along the Lebanon border), but we wouldn’t have time and also didn’t want to take a bus south and then back to the very North. We didn’t know that there wasn’t a direct bus. We took a train to Tel-Aviv and then a bus to Jerusalem. After being told several different buses that would take us towards our youth hostel in Jerusalem, we finally got on one that went to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City and from there found our Youth Hostel, The Heritage House, at the corner of the Jewish, Arab, Christian. And Armenian Quarters.

The Heritage House is run by religious Jews and supported by American donors. It used to be free, but is now still the cheapest hostel that I know of in Jerusalem (25 shekels per night / 50 on Shabbat). For dinner we went to a place called Burgers Bar so I could get a glass Diet Coke bottle for Stuart, my brother (These bottles are almost impossible to find, but they have them there). In the evening we attended a class in the hostel on Judaism. We also were taken into a store to look at carpets by a nice guy who ended up being to persistant and kind of creepy. He wanted to show us his “hospitality” though and gave us free bottles of orange juice while he showed us his silk carpets (He dropped the price for one from $900 - $200 for my friend). While this was going on, I did buy two pairs of opal earrings from him for my Grandma.

Thursday, September 18

We started off the day by going to the Kotel (As it is the time before Rosh Hoshanah I saw/heard the blowing of the Shofar at the Kotel which was awesome) and then stopping by Jeff Seidel’s building to confirm that he would be able to set us up with families for meals on Shabbat ( We then took a bus with a really cool driver (as in he may have taken us past his route and he got out of the bus to shake our hands before he drove off) to the Israeli Supreme Court building. There we went in a waited and in about half an hour there was an English tour that explained the role of the Judiciary in Israel and showed us the courts as well as a museum about major decisions in Israel’s history. It was quite interesting. I also go to unlock one of the courtrooms. I never expected to have a key to an Israeli courtroom in my hand.

After the Supreme Court, we went to the Knesset building. I had been told mixed things about whether or not they offered tours of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. After trying to figure out whether to stay for what may or may not be a tour, we followed the rather forceful instructions of a guard and went inside the security area and sat for a half an hour to wait to enter the Knesset building. We then went through security during which time they padded us down and took our cameras from us for when we were in the building. We then walked to the Knesset and on our tour saw a video about the building, saw the library, saw the Plenum (meeting) room and saw the state reception hall with all of its Marc Chagall mosaics and tapestries. We learned a lot about the structure of the Israeli government and got a helpful pamphlet that explained more.

After the Knesset, we went to the Israel Museum. The majority of the museum is closed through 2010 for renovations, but we saw the Shrine of the Book – the Dead Sea Scrolls and a model of Second Temple Period Jerusalem. We then took a taxi to Ben-Yehuda Street and walked along there before heading back to our youth hostel. At the hostel, we decided to talk to the Kotel (why not, we were only a five minute walk away). There was a huge crowd with a lot of soldiers. After asking a lady I found out that they were celebrating the end of Basic Training for a paratrooper unit. It was quite amazing to see.

Friday, September 19

We took the day a bit slower after several crazy and exciting days. We started off again at the Kotel and then walked around the Old City including the underground Cardo mall. We went to a genealogy museum at the Kotel that was interesting, but I don’t know if it needs to be seen more than once. It discussed the history of the Jewish people and the importance of Jerusalem to Judaism. We walked in ancient tunnels from different periods of the city. Most of the museum is conveyed through glass towers and sculptures and was described via audio guide. The coolest part was a 3D video type thing at the end.

After the museum we walked to Mea Shearim to see what it looked like. There were (obviously) a lot of Hasidic Jews. It was kind of cool, but not really the image I had had in my mind. Of course, we could have been in a different area of the ulta-Orthodox neighborhood than I had expected. We then got lunch (Shwarma and Falafel) and went back to the Kotel for a bit before returning to the hostel to get ready for Shabbat.

We davened Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel (what an experience!). It took a bit of minyan hopping between a Hassidic group and a yeshiva group, before we decided to pray with the Yeshiva students. They did a lot of singing and dancing which I love, especially at the Kotel. We (the Yeshiva group) ended up being in the middle of two groups of soldiers and one of them would dance with us. That was awesome. We only made it through Kabbalat Shabbat before we had to go meet the family that was hosting us for dinner. On the way, I met a Chabad Rabbi who knows my Rabbi from DU.

The family that had us over for dinner was very nice. They are American and the guy is studying in a Yeshiva to become a Rabbi. They live just past the Jerusalem Great Synagogue. In a crazy incident, the power in their neighborhood went out and we ended up moving their dinner to their friend’s home across the street since they were not home and had electricity.

Saturday, September 20

Apparently a lot of the young folk don’t go to Saturday morning services. I wanted to go for a bit though and went to the Kotel and found a late starting minyan to pray with for about an hour. While I wasn’t there too long, I did pray part of Shacharit, the Amidah, and start the Torah service with them. Seeing and hearing the reading of the Torah at the Kotel on Shabbat was very enjoyable. I then met a guy named Amir who works with Jeff Seidel and we walked to a family’s home for lunch (back near the Great Synagogue).

The family whose home I went to was extremely religious and I wasn’t the biggest fan of the company, but they grew on me. The food though was insane. It just kept coming, course after course, and after lunch, they put out snacks. We walked back to the youth hostel where I relaxed for a bit and read a bit before going back to the Kotel for the last time for Shabbat. Upon rearrival at the hostel, we had a small dinner and then a lesson by a Rabbi on the Torah Portion. At this point Shabbat was over. We did Havdallah, we packed up, and took a bus to the central bus station. We got on a bus back to Be’er Sheva and arrived back at Ben-Gurion University without incident.

It was a long, crazy, exciting, fun, adventure-filled break.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Semester Day Two

Today went well, but seems to have flown by. This morning, my Israeli roommate moved out. Now it is just me and Christian - and he leaves in about two weeks-ish.

I had Hebrew again for the first time since Ulpan. My new teacher is Ora. She seems like she will be really good and is teaching us how to remember words, which should be good for me. I also had Jewish Identity and Contemporary Issues. The class seems really interesting and professor is very knowledgeable. He also invited us to his home for Shabbat dinner or lunch :-)

This afternoon, I worked on some random stuff, hung out with, people and went to the pool. This evening I did homework. It's kinda weird having homework again, but I'm hoping that everything will be as interesting and intriguing as it seems it will be.

I was going to write about my vacation today, but that will happen tomorrow now. I'm tired.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

First Day of the Semester

Last night I returned from traveling around Israel. Today was the first day of the fall semester. I had the class Critical Decisions in the History of the State of Israel. It seems like it will be a very interesting class and the Professor seems like he will be enjoyable. After that class, I sat in on Environmental Issues and Public Policy in Israel and the Middle East. It is one of the classes that I am interested in, but don't think that I'll end up taking it. Our program directors though recommended that we sit in on some extra classes during the first week in case we decide that we like one of them better than the classes we pre-registered for. I'll have to make a decision for sure by the end of the week.

The rest of my day was spent catching up with people from the Overseas Program, trying to catch up on emails and whatnot, and talking to my Israeli roommate who is moving out tomorrow. I am planning on posting my pictures from break and a fairly detailed description of my break within the next day or so.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Email - End of Ulpan / Off to Travel

Dear everyone,

It's amazing how fast time flies. This email is going to be a bit shorter than it perhaps should because I leave in less than an hour for Eilat and subsequent traveling around Israel for a little over a week. This just means that you'll have to read my blog ( and look at my pictures ( to get more details (or email me J).

Our Ulpan is now over. Wednesday was our final exam and I think that I did well. That evening we had our end of Ulpan dinner and celebration at Abraham's Well, the site where Abraham was told to come by G-D and the reasoning for the naming of Be'er Sheva. We had a great dinner and each class did a song/skit for everyone. Logically, mine was awesome. Sometimes I feel like I didn't learn enough in Ulpan, but then I think back to just a few weeks ago when I didn't even know how to say "Central Bus Station" in Hebrew – which is important when you rely on buses for a lot of your transportation. I guess I have come a good way, but of course have much more to go.

Here are some of the Highlights of the past week and a half:

Our overseas student group took a day trip to Masada, Ein Gedi, and the Dead Sea. It was a long day, beginning at 3:00 a.m. but quite worth it. We hiked up Masada for the sunrise and explored the mountain after the beautiful sunrise was over. This was especially exciting for me since I didn't get to do this the last time I was in Israel due to illness. After the hottest early morning of my life and hottest 9:00 a.m. hike ever, we went to Ein Gedi, a desert oasis that was a good time and after that, drove to the Dead Sea where we floated in the water – also something that I didn't get to do my last time in Israel. A bunch of us finished the day with a sort of "potluck" Shabbat dinner.

I missed Labor Day. I really wanted to BBQ, but alas no grill was to be found (and no American flags either).

Last Thursday, I went with our Ulpan class to a Beduin museum to learn about the history, culture, and traditions of the Beduin. It was very interesting. In the evening, we went to a dinner/bonfire event with some overseas students from Tel-Aviv University and Hebrew University. It was a great time and I even met a friend from Kansas City there who I haven't seen in several years. Israel is crazy. The highlight of the day though was a trip to the Gaza Border and nearby communities including a moshav, Sderot, and a kibbutz – the hardest hit areas by the Qassam Rocket Attacks. Being at the border, looking into Gaza, visiting these places, and the learning about the rocket attacks and their affect on people was one of my favorite experiences thus far in Israel. I could write several emails about it, but I wrote about it fairly extensively on my blog so you can read about it there or send me an email.

I spent last Shabbat with two families. I went to one family's home and on to Friday Night services with them before returning for Shabbat Dinner which was very good. The father works at the University and had at one thought about being a Conservative Rabbi and the wife works for the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. Both parents are from the U.S. They were very nice. Shabbat (Saturday) morning I went back to their synagogue (a small Orthodox shul with about 50 families) and after services (I got an aliyah J) I met another family who had me over to their apartment for a great lunch. The father is Israeli and the mother is American. It was a great Shabbat and I've been invited back to both families J

I would keep on writing but I have to run. Today I am leaving Be'er Sheva for our break between Ulpan and Semester. Below is a rough outline of my break. It could still change, so who knows. I am excited to spend time exploring Israel and a day in Jordan.

Thursday - Be'er Sheva
Friday - Eilat
Saturday - Eilat
Sunday - Petra, Jordan and then back to Be'er Sheva at night
Monday - leave late morning/early afternoon (by train?) to Haifa
Tuesday - Bahai Gardens in Haifa then on to Tiberias
Wednesday - Tiberias / Sea of the Galilee / Hiking in the North
Thursday - Leave the North for Jerusalem
Friday - Jerusalem
Saturday - Jerusalem
Saturday night - Back to Be'er Sheva
Sunday - Semester classes start

Let me know what you think. I will send out a better update after returning from break around the time the semester classes start.

Please be in touch.

All the best,

Joel Portman

What I Should Have Written

So I should have written a nice post yesterday. It would have included the fact that Ulpan is over, as of Wednesday. I did pretty well (I think) on my final exam. I am going to miss my Ulpan teacher Hannah. She was awesome. We went downtown to the Old City and got great fruit smoothies :-). At night we had our end of Ulpan party at Abraham's Well with a lot of food and skits/songs from each class. It was a good time.

Yesterday (Thursday), was suppossed to be an easy, relazxing day, but of course ended up flying by. It was a day of mixed emotions. The students from Germany left and I am good friends with a number of them now. That was unexpected at the beginning of the trip.

We also worked on attempting to formalize our break schedule. Here is a rough outline:

Thursday - Be'er Sheva
Friday - Eilat
Saturday - Eilat
Sunday - Petra, Jordan and then back to Be'er Sheva at night
Monday - leave late morning/early afternoon (by train?) to Haifa
Tuesday - Bahai Gardens in Haifa then on to Tiberias
Wednesday - Tiberias / Sea of the Galilee / Hiking in the North
Thursday - Leave the North for Jerusalem
Friday - Jerusalem
Saturday - Jerusalem
Saturday night - Back to Be'er Sheva
Sunday - Semester classes start

I'm sending an email to everyone shortly with this information.

That's it for now. I have to get ready to leave for Eilat :-) Be in touch.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Pictures - Beduins & Gaza

Here is the link to my pictures from last Thursday's trip to the Beduin Museum, Gaza border, Sderot, other communities, and Beduin dinner.

Check them out.

I Need to Study

Tomorrow, we have our final in Ulpan. I need to study, mainly learning vocabulary (verbs, opposites, etc.) and reaffirm my knowledge of conjugations for verb forms. In the evening, we are having a dinner/party to celebrate the end of Ulpan. Each Ulpan class is singing a song or putting on a play. Ours is pretty cool (It's based on the song "Racovah Sheli - My Hat Has Three Corners".

Last night, I went to an observatory and plannetarium on campus and saw a pretty good close-up of the moon and saw Jupitur. We then went into a classroom with a small planetarium set up and learned a little about astronomy. It was pretty cool.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


I had a meeting today with Dr. Shlomo Chertok, the Director of the Overseas Student Program. I am now fairly certain on my class choices for the semester.

I will be completing the Peace Studies and Regional Security Track which has three required classes and one elective. My class choices will likely be:

Jewish Identity and Contemporary Issues
Critical Decisions in the History of the State of Israel
Introduction to Terrorism and Guerrilla Warfare in the International Arena and in the Middle East
Arms Control and the Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East

Below is a look at what my class schedule could look like:

BGU Campus Map

I figured that at some point I should share with you what the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Campus looks like and what the areas are that I frequent. Below is a map of campus with a few places circled and detailed. The map is in Hebrew so good luck figuring out the rest of campus. :-)

Click the map for more details.


This weekend I had a wonderful Shabbat. I spent Shabbat with two different families in Be'er Sheva who I have never met.

Friday evening, prior to Shabbat, I took a cab to a family's apartment home. The parents are American and the children were born in Israel. They are 9, 11, and 14. The 14 year old just started school at a Yeshiva that he lives at during the week. They were very nice. I went with the children and the father to their synagogue nearby. It was Beit Knesset Rambam, a small neighborhood shul (synagogue) with around 50 families as members. They described it to me as one of 4 Ashkenazi synagogues in Be'er Sheva (out of around 200). The services were standard modern Orthodox, and while they were good and meaningful, they did not include as much singing as I would have liked.

After services, we returned to their home for a very good dinner. I learned that the father works in development at Ben-Gurion University and prior to spending two years in Yeshiva, had planned on being a Conservative Rabbi (he had also gone on USY Israel Pilgrimage). The mother works for the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. They were very nice. After dinner the father walked me part of the way back and told me how to return to their synagogue in the morning.

Saturday morning, I walked back to Beit Knesset Rambam and arrived at the end of the repitition of the Shacharit Amidah, joining the same family in time for the Torah Service. The 35-45 minute walk in the desert town (while wearing long sleaves and pants) was rather hot. I was pleasantly surprised during the Torah service when I was given the fifth Aliyah. That made me happy.

After services, I was introduced to the family that was hosting me for lunch. I also met a member of the synagogue who is from St. Louis. I was invited to her home for a meal at some point (I have since gotten their contact information to arrange that).

The family that hosted me for lunch was a nice group and an interesting mix. The father is Israeli and the mother is from Ohio. Their kids (14 - almost 15 - year old twin girls and a 13.5 year old boy) were born in the United States prior to the family's move to Israel. The father is retired but does a lot of work still and the wife is a pediatric dentist. They are not Shomer Shabbat, but regardless knew how to have a good Shabbat lunch.

For lunch we had, among other things, three types of fish, four types of chicken, two types of rice, and two types of potatoes. It was splendid. We spent some time talking and then I watched a movie at the request of their kids. We then had some Parve (non-milk) ice cream. I left to walk back to campus shortly after.

Both families have invited me back for future Shabbatot, etc. It was a great Shabbat.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Thursday - Read this Post

So it took me longer to post this than I expected. Here's a description of my day Thursday:

Instead of Ulpan, all of our classes went to a Beduin Museum about 30 minutes from Be'er Sheva. At the museum, we looked at a number of exhibits that were described to us by a Beduin tour guide. He told us about the Beduin people, differences between culture and modern advances, and his personal story. We then went to a large Beduin tent where we discussed Beduin hospitality. In the tent, my Hebrew teacher, Hannah (who is awesome), translated a story from a Beduin man about hospitality. A man had come to his tent and the host was poor but had to feed the guest so he slaughtered the guest's camel and served it to the guest. The guest was not happy about this when he found out upon trying to leave and took the man to a Beduin court. The court decided in favor of the host and he ended up recieving 35ish camels from the tribe for his dedication to hospitality. After the story, we were served Beduin tea. It was splendid. After the tea, we saw a short video about the Beduin.

We then returned to the dorms and hung out for a bit before the next part of the adventure. At 1:00 p.m. a group of us met and had a pizza lunch ("American Pizza" was the company). We then took a bus to Netiv HaAsara, the closest community in Israel to the Gaza Strip. We were previously told that we didn't have a security clearance to go to the Gaza border, but apparently that was not entirely true. While we didn't get close enough to the border to touch it, we stood at a very close distance and were able to see the border clearly as well as right inside Gaza and perhaps the outskirts of Gaza City on the horizon.

We were joined by a man from Netiv HaAsara, the moshav, who told us about the history of the rocket attack situation. He definately had conservative, extremely right-wing views of the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. He had some interesting points though.

After Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Israel built a wall/fence around the Gaza border in six weeks. The whole thing is a fence with strong censors on it except for a 2ish kilometer section around the moshav. The guy said that it was for more of the psychological effect of safety and that it had been breached once on a foggy day by three terrorists who started shooting nearby.

The fence is no help for the rockets that are shot over it and snipers could still pick people off. In fact, he told us that the Israeli army was watching us where we were and that snipers in Gaza could find us without much difficulty. Apparently they had let a previous group stand on a slight hill next to where we were and soldiers came over and questioned why they let people stand there. There were towers near the border with Gaza that take video surveillance as well as monitor all communication in the Gaza border area, if not all of the Gaza Strip.

Over a seven year period that includes several cease-fires or periods of calm, over 1400 Kassam rockets have been shot into Israel from Gaza. That number excludes Mortor attacks. This community, Sderot, and the Kibbutz we visited have been the most affected.

Israel has instituted an "early" warning system for the rockets. After sensors pick up the rocket, sirens go off in the target area that say "Red Alert", or "Tzeva Adom" in Hebrew. This gives residents, at most, 12-15 seconds to get to a bomb shelter or at least a better protected area. Most people do not have bomb shelters in their homes and more are being built around the cities by the government to at least provide protection from shrapnel. 12-15 seconds goes by extremely quickly - we did a test run to see what it was like (it wasn't a real alarm, dont worry) and it took us 24 seconds and we could see the shelter close by. The alarm can go off any time and oftern it occurs at night.

In Sderot, we learned about their situation with the rocket attacks, being the most attacked city. The presentation, by the Sderot Media Center, focused on the human side of the attacks. Many who can afford to have left the city. It is rare to see people outside. Children don't play on playgrounds. People can't sleep. Schools are having bomb protection coverings built over them. Over 45% of the population of Sderot has some sort of anxiety or post-traumatic stresss disorder.

In Sderot, we watched a video while underground in a bomb shelter. We saw a playground that had bomb shelters built as part of the playground equipment. We saw shelters and protected areas all over the city. We saw a house with holes in it from shrapnel. We heard stories of death and injury as well as miracles and survival. We saw stores with thick metal doors and window covers. We saw a house that was being rebuilt after being leveled by a rocket attack. I held a Kassam rocket. This could not be a pleasant way to grow up.

Also in Sderot, we visited a Yeshiva that was growing as a statement that the rockets could not destroy the city. They were rebuilding the entire school. Their enrollement is growing. The dorms that they are building are all bomb shelters. We discussed the situation with the Rosh Yeshiva, the Rabbi who runs the Yeshiva for a different perspective and stood on the Yeshiva's roof for a look over Sderot and the surrounding area.

After Sderot, we visited a Kibbutz (They had the second highest number of rocket attacks) and got a tour by a resident who told us exactly where rockets had hit and how she would randomly start crying. It was very powerful.

When the media says that a Kassam Rocket was fired into or landed in an open area and no one was hurt, that means a field or a street. This is misleading. That does not mean that people were not nearby or that the entire city was not put on alert. People drive without seatbelts on, with the windows down, and without the radio on. This makes it easier to hear an alarm and then to get out of a car and to "safety" quicker. Additionally, no anouncements are made over loud speakers (in grocery stores, etc.). Loud noices get a reaction from the residents of fear. Parents are now trying to send their children into other areas of Israel for at least a year so that they can experience a "normal" life, without the constant threat of rocket attack.

On our way back to Be'er Sheva, we found out about an opportunity to go to a dinner at a Beduin tent with some overseas students at Tel-Aviv University and Hebrew University who were there for an overnight trip. A number of us went for dinner and a bonfire and hung out and met these students. I actually ended up meeting a friend from Kansas City who is studying at Tel-Aviv University who I have been out of touch with for about three years. It was kind of crazy. We ended up staying much longer than we were suppossed to which was okay with us, but our bus driver didn't seem thrilled.

Thursday was a great day. There was so much more that I learned and experienced that is not written here. I will probably write about my Shabbat experience tomorrow as I have a lot more to do tonight before bed. I will also post my pictures from the places described here shortly.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Wonderful Day

I was going to post a long description of my day, but since it is now 1:47 a.m. I will have to do that tomorrow.

Today our Ulpan classes went to a Beduin Museum where we learned a bit about Beduin history, culture, and tradition. Then I went on a trip to the Gaza Border, Sderot, and several communities near the border that have been affected by Kassam Rockets. Then, unexpectedly, I went to a meal at a Beduin tent in the middle of the desert where we ate, had a bonfire, and met students from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv University.

I just got back. It's been a fun, long, enjoyable day. More soon.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Here are a number of pictures from the past few weeks:

Bowling and Paintballing

Outside and Around Be'er Sheva

Masada, Ein Gedi, and the Dead Sea

Happy Labor Day!

So something like this should have been posted on Monday, September 1:

Happy Labor Day! I can't believe that it is September already! Where did the summer go? I feel like I should still be at school in Denver in the Spring. What happened to summer camp? Was I even at home? Where did the first month of being in Israel go? This is craziness...

Labor Day in Israel is... wait, no - it doesn't exist. There are no parades or American flags or a MDA telethon. I really wanted to BBQ, but alas, I did not have a BBQ. Instead, I made myself a (premade) hamburger and had some Coca-Cola. It was a nice meal.

We even had school on Labor Day...