Hidden Glory

11/03/2016 - 5:21pm
My semester abroad revealed how fast friendships form and how easily Israel could feel like home.

Room 33: The author, standing on the right, with her roommates at Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Photos courtesy of Audrey Mokhtarzadeh 

My mind and body in sync, saying goodbye seemed so simple in the months of preparation. The plans sounded so painless: search, pack, and we’re off. Until it wasn’t.

As time progressed, my fantasy became more real. My fear of living in Israel for four months with 35 classmates on the Tiferet program grew. (Tiferet means glory in Hebrew.) Quick texts goodbye no longer seemed difficult, as my stomach churned at the thought of picking between black and white socks. In only a short amount of time, I had gone from ready to go, to waterfall-like tears holding me back.

Before I knew it, I could count the number of days till our departure on a single hand. Five days. Days of anxiety, attachment, anticipation, and aggravation.

Thoughts of Hebrew street signs, grocery shopping on my own, and long days of school had me second guessing my decision to go to Israel.

Three days and suddenly I’d forgotten how to let go.

Less than 24 hours. Any conversation about this “experience of a lifetime” as they called it, had my heart pumping; I was excited. Until I stood watching my parents cry, and my rapid heartbeat trembled with doubt. I was surrounded by loved ones I’d soon be leaving behind and as much as I wanted to believe them, my eyes blurry with tears made it difficult to see how amazing it would be.

* * *  

A few steps beyond the revolving doors of Ben Gurion Airport, and suddenly the citizens were no longer strangers, my peers more like brothers and sisters, and Israel no longer just a place on the map.

If I stood on the cart loaded with my suitcases I could see the “Welcome to Israel and Alexander Muss” sign in the distance. I was convinced that the three young adults holding each end of the enormous sign were representatives from the bus company. However, the nagging of 36 anxious, nervous and exhausted teenagers was immediately shot down by these three strangers — Ariel, Vered and Naomi — who would become our counselors, companions, guides, and would-be siblings. 

We were mostly strangers, these 36 out of 124 students from the Milken Community Schools Class of 2018, some of whom have never spoken a word to one another. We hit it off as a group on the bus from the airport. How well do you really know someone until you’ve watched them fall fast asleep in all sorts of weird positions on a 30-minute bus ride? Not as well as you thought, is what I’ll say. Quicker than expected, my fears began fading behind my search for glory in my new home, surrounded by my second family. (Photo: Members of the Milken group at Tel Dan.)

Exiting Route 5, Hod Hasharon exceeded my expectations. From my home in Los Angeles I was quick to paint a stereotypical image of the place as a desert. In my imagination, the asphalt streets were dirt paths, the cars more like camels, and the greenery a few palm trees here and there. Looking through the huge windows of Itzik’s bus, Hod Hasharon would soon be the place I’d know like the back of my hand.

Our mouths dropped in awe as the bus pulled into Mossensohn, the campus of Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Standing by the entrance of the flower garden, we met our fourth counselor, Itamar, who showed us to our dorms.

The path was rocky, but as we passed by the outdoor park, I could see our building; the only thing standing between me and my temporary house were black cats. Standing together on the patio, we looked onto our new home, four lavender walls with a roof. 

I remember the glass front door being much heavier than I’d expected. Swinging the door wide open, we walked right into what was known as the moadon, our common space. The white interior walls of the building contrasting against the yellow, green, and red leather couches immediately caught my eye.

I noticed the clean wood floors below me and the blemish-free, eggshell-white walls of my new home around me.

We ate pizza in the cafeteria, some comfort in a strange place, and then we were given the keys to our rooms.

“I call bottom bunk,” my roommates screamed on the way up. Running full force toward the door, there it was. Room 33: Audrey, Stephanie, Kayla, Sasha, and Alexa. 

The five of us prepared for our first night in Hod Hasharon.

* * *

Considering our jet-lag, the lively atmosphere of Room 33, and the anticipation for our first big day, 7 a.m. wake-up was difficult. A quick stop at the cafeteria for a perfectly fluffy pancake, a couple of wrong turns here and there, and I’d finally made it to class.

As students of Alexander Muss, we were enrolled in Core, the class which affected me beyond the classroom walls. Core focused on the history of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel from Biblical times until current conflicts, and it was the place where my Zionism and Jewish pride were integrated into the formation of my identity.

Our Core teacher, Gavriel, gave one of the most important pieces of advice: “The experience will fly by. Enjoy every second.”

Students stand proud of their country, Israel. One hundred and twenty days later, and Gavriel couldn’t have been more spot on. The moment we’d never imagined had arrived. Days before take-off, Kayla, Stephanie, Sasha, Alexa, and I slowly took down the pictures and posters which hung on the walls of our concrete jungle. For the remaining nights, the plain walls which once intimidated me, were again empty, only not like the start of our semester. Each wall, each indent, each dust bunny under the bed was a lasting artifact of our glory.

May 26, 2016: The hardest goodbyes yet. Standing in the common area I was enveloped with new feelings. Looking down and all around, the furniture, the floors, and the walls, which were once brand new, were marked by mud from hikes, water fights, and crazy 2 a.m. dance parties.

Standing in my empty room tears streaming down my face, it was time to soak up what was left of my experience, hand back my keys, and prepare for the remainder of our final, heartbreaking day. My legs in sync with my heart, I couldn't step out the door.

While most students walked out of the heavy glass door fairly quickly, I was hesitant to let the building go. Each corner of the moadon filled my heart with a past memory. The right corner of the ceiling: the home of the bird who got stuck in our dorm. The bulletin wall: a place covered with emergency phone numbers and group announcements. The right wall: where we played Just Dance 2. Looking onto each corner of the room, the walls of my new home felt as if they were beginning to crumble.

Closing my eyes, the empty room before me felt compact. It was there, standing with my eyes shut, where I found my Glory.

Glory is having a face-to-face conversation getting to know someone.

It’s pushing the boundaries, facing consequences, but learning from them.

It’s dropping whatever it is you’re doing to help a friend.

Glory is walking through the hail in the desert.

It’s bonfires with arms wrapped around one another.

It’s watching the sunrise hiking up Masada.

Glory is standing in solidarity with those who passed away so that I could be here today.

It’s waking up to Reuven’s rendition of Rise and Shine.

It’s Gavriel’s ability to teach us to have faith in one day.

Glory is water fights in the middle of dirty lakes.

It’s paint fights on a Shabbat afternoon.

It’s singing at the top of your lungs in the shower.

Glory is in every bite of a schnitzel sandwich.

Glory is sitting on the bare ground of my home, the Land of Israel.

Glory is written along the walls of Room 33.

Glory is in all of us, Tiferet 2016.

Walking out of the dorm, holding that glass door one last time, wiping the tears off my face, it was time to remember the glory and cherish it forever.

Since my return from Israel, there isn't a single day when I forget my pride, love, appreciation, and connection to my home 7,536 miles away.

I have successfully found a way to bring the glory of the walls of my dorm into my bedroom in Los Angeles: physically, by hanging pictures and souvenirs of my experience, and emotionally, by continuing to see the glory in myself, my people, my homeland, in conversations and new experiences so that the glorious moments will no longer be overlooked or forgotten. 

author's bio: 
Audrey Mokhtarzadeh is a junior at Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles.