It’s hard to know where to begin this story exactly. So, I’ll start at the very, very beginning. I grew up in rural Calvert County, Maryland. For those of you who don’t know, this is church country. It’s an area that has a plethora of churches dotted along Maryland Route 4. It’s ready to cater to whatever flavor of Christianity you savor.
Calvert County is also home to exactly one mosque. The construction of which was, believe it or not, paid for by Saddam Hussein. You have to love local history. It keeps a place interesting, even a place as uninteresting as Calvert (I’m allowed to say that, as I spent the first 20ish years of my life there). Now, outside of our many churches and our one very interestingly storied mosque, I am aware of no other religious centers in Calvert. There is no synagogue. I can count on one hand the number of Jewish classmates I had from elementary school through high school.
All of this being the case, you can probably imagine what a culture shock it was for me when I moved to and attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore Country (UMBC). Baltimore boasts a comparatively large Jewish population, and pockets of Jewish communities surround it on its outskirts. I mean, I was raised Jewish. I have Jewish family members (obviously), and I did attend a Hebrew school twice a week until my bat mitzvah (though that Hebrew school was not nearby). However, I had never before been in a place where I couldn’t count all the Jews around me on one hand. I had never been so confronted with the incredible diversity of what being Jewish entails prior to college.
So, naturally, that just made me want to get involved in the whole shabang! This meant going to events put on by UMBC Hillel, the UMBC branch of an international non-profit organization known as Hillel. Hillel helps to facilitate pluralistic Jewish life on college campuses across the world. Joining these events and getting involved in my Jewish community naturally led me to intern with this organization, become the president, and even work at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore.
While doing all of this, I obviously became not only more immersed in my community, but also in my own history. For instance, did you know the first documented Jew in Maryland lived in Calvert County in the 1600s? I love it when things come full circle. Also, I’m not related to them. My family came from Baltimore on my mom’s side and Allentown, PA, on my dad’s. My Jewish lineage has not been sitting in Calvert County since the 1600s. I just wanted to make that clear.
Learning More About My Culture Through Hillel
This also, inevitably, led to me learning about programs that take Jewish students and adults abroad to Israel. Notably, there are also some programs for the gentiles interested in living in the holy land. Some examples of this are MASA, Birthright, and WUJS. MASA is technically the umbrella organization for all of these programs, including Birthright and WUJS (both of which I did), but they also run programs like the Masa Teaching Fellowship.
Birthright, also referred to as Taglit (meaning discovery), is a 10-day experience in Israel where you travel across this beautiful New Jersey-sized country. During this trip, you get a chance to see Jerusalem, swim in the Dead Sea, and climb Masada. Tip: don’t take the snake trail going down if you are clumsy like me! I almost fell off. Also on the trip, I got to sleep in a Bedouin tent, and do a bunch of other things. It was my first experience in Israel.
Going to Israel
Now, I went on my Birthright trip through UMBC Hillel. Typically, Birthright trips are most easily accessible through colleges and college-affiliated organizations such as Hillel. However, you don’t have to be in college or be part of these organizations to go on Birthright. You do have to be Jewish — and you have to be able to prove it. Typically, you have to be under 30. However, there are many different types of Birthright experiences, and it’s accessible to Jews worldwide. The main thing is if you aren’t going through your Jewish/college community organizations, do your research and make sure to pick the best one for you. I chose to go through my school and my Hillel. I went with people I knew and trusted, which worked best for me.
Figuring Things Out
Alright, so I went on Birthright when I was a college sophomore. Fast forward to 2018, I had recently graduated from UMBC. I still worked at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore and I had picked up two more jobs. In addition, I also acted as a basic Hebrew and Jewish education teacher at a synagogue in DC on Sundays. I taught a charming group of 2nd graders who didn’t want to be there. On top of that, I worked at a call center for a now-defunct book company in Columbia, Maryland.
Suffice to say, I was in my car a lot. I was putting away money and constantly on the move. If I didn’t want to drive an hour to get back to my bed at my parent’s house after work, I crashed on friends’ couches. I had been thinking about doing a master’s program in literature, so I took a Latin course at a community college in Annapolis, Maryland, as a refresher. I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. What did the next stage of my existence look like?
A Desire to Explore
Well, I started getting a few job offers working with different Jewish non-profits around this time. I enjoy non-profit and cultural work, but I had doubts. I didn’t feel sure if I wanted to only work in the Jewish community for the rest of my professional existence. Ultimately, I felt afraid of pigeon-holing myself there… so I decided to go abroad! Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Alana, if you didn’t want to get stuck only working in Jewish community-related jobs, why would you go to Israel?” That’s a great question! The simple answer is that I wanted to get abroad as fast as possible. I had not had the opportunity to do so during college, and it was something I had been itching to do for a long time.
As a Jewish person, applying to a program to work and live in Israel for a period of time was one of the simplest and easiest options. I had wanted to go back and see more of Israel since I went on Birthright. It was less about what I’d be doing and where I’d be going and more about having the chance to see more of the world than I was regularly confronted with. Also, you never truly know a place until you’ve lived in it.
Participating in the WUJS Program
I applied to the WUJS program, a five-month program in Israel where you can either live in Tel Aviv or Haifa and you get help being placed with your ideal internship. On top of this, you are also given living accommodations, a special MASA visa to work and live under the program, Hebrew courses, a set amount of money towards travel and food during your workweek, and weekend trips to different parts of Israel. Now, this program isn’t free; you do have to pay for it and/or apply for a grant to help cover it. So I applied for the program and the grant and got both. I still had to cover part of this program out of pocket, but, thankfully, the grant covered the majority of my program-related expenses, or I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
While I had visited Tel Aviv before, the cost of living there through the program was more expensive than living in Haifa. Haifa was also new territory for me. So, for both of those reasons, I chose to go to Haifa. And, to this day, I have no regret in making that decision. I made a beautiful little community for myself whilst there, including a mix of locals, people from my program, and others who had chosen to make their home (at least temporarily) in Haifa for various reasons. I’m still in touch with many of these people to this day, though we do not all live in Haifa anymore.
Adventure Awaits in Haifa, Israel
I can’t wait to share even more about my experiences in Haifa, Israel, with you! Look out for my second article, where I will discuss my internship and time in Israel more in-depth. Until then, keep reading!
by Alana Hayes