By Zohar Levy
One of the least rational things to do during a pandemic is move to a new country. Starting over in an unfamiliar city, without friends, learning at a completely new institution and dealing with a non-native language is a seemingly pretty ridiculous choice to make in the year 2020. And yet, this past fall, I was surrounded by hundreds of questionably bold people who also moved to Israel mid-COVID-19.
Under normal circumstances, studying abroad is the time to ditch class and travel around your new home. It’s when you eat at local restaurants, linger at bars until morning hours and somehow allow your friends to drag you to a club blasting music you don’t really understand. My friends who “returned from abroad,” would wave their hands excitedly as they told me about the friends they made in hostels and their coffee dates with random bartenders. I had anticipated that I too would share in this American study-abroad experience during my own junior year of college.
It has taken me four months in Jerusalem — complete with two weeks in quarantine isolation, two country lockdowns and too-small social gatherings — to begin to understand that my positive experiences here did not happen in spite of COVID-19, but perhaps because of it.
In October, I moved to the student apartments for my fall semester at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Due to online classes, a lack of organized social events and the empty student village, it was difficult to meet people upon my entry to this new school. I too was a quasi-2020 college frosh. However, unlike the first-year student who has four full years ahead of them, the temporality of my time at HebrewU added an additional bizarre element to the corona-college equation.
Luckily, within a few weeks, I grew close with several people who also lived in Building 6, Floor 5. Our limited ability to explore around campus or meet locals our age in the city pieced together an unlikely collection of people. We hailed from four continents, studied all sorts of majors and had few hobbies in common. If it weren’t for COVID, truthfully, we probably would not have come together.
Our time spent as a group did not resemble the class ditching, city traveling, food tours and bar hopping that usually accompany a semester abroad. The closed shops, restaurants and university campus, along with the lack of tours, performances and cultural events, cultivated a more intimate feel. We ate dinners togethers, explored markets and nature hikes, held movie nights and worked out in the grass area outside our building. We learned how to prepare elaborate meals only using the stove top and a water kettle. We laughed at the boys when they grew beards.
Our own patchwork of a quarantine family joined together for special occasions too. Our holidays in the holy city were felt in mildly underwhelming, yet very homey ways. Shabbat dinners were a fascinating blend of Jews and Christians from all sorts of religious observance backgrounds. Thanksgiving brought together two Americans and two Germans. Hanukkah evenings consisted of frying latkes and lighting candles with whoever was around. Birthdays took place beside fire pits and vegetarian barbecues in forest campgrounds. Traditional Chinese dumplings were eaten for the East Asian Dongzhi, or Winter Solstice, Festival. Christmas was spent together in the Christian city of Nazareth. All of these religious and national traditions blended even more alongside the sounds of Muslim calls to prayer, five times daily.
Despite the fact that my new friends and I knew that we would part ways in just two short months, we lived our COVID-limited lives to the fullest. These thrown-together meals, grocery shopping excursions, outings to the Old City of Jerusalem and adapted holiday celebrations were definitely not the semester any of us had expected. And yet, it was exactly these moments which made my experience so whole.
Without a doubt, we would’ve had a more exploratory experience without the impacts of the coronavirus; however, we grew simultaneously independently and together. Heightened by the pandemic’s constantly changing news and regulations, the Israeli culture of “lizrom” — to flow — tested our ability to not only adapt, but be excited by the change. We were forced to live in the present in ways none of us had ever truly experienced before. Within three short months, I felt the beginnings of a deep-seeded shift in my perspective.
When I first arrived in Israel, lack of information about the coronavirus and its effects on society, the disorganized university structure and feelings of loneliness overwhelmed my ability to relax. The semester at HebrewU, though COVID-19 nor Israeli disorganization improved, validated the importance of focusing on the current moment by seeking positive relationships with like-minded, supportive people. I didn’t have time to worry about the future or about impending country lockdowns, for my move to Israel would have been for nothing. I appreciated the simple joy in cooking with my neighbors or adventuring to another building to do laundry together. With this mindset, I made the decision to stay in Israel for another six months.
Now, a few months later, I wait for my next program to start in two weeks where the same situation awaits me: a raging pandemic and a not-so-organized program filled with people I haven’t yet met. This time, however, I’m far more excited about the uncertainty that awaits me. Failing to even know the address of my new apartment, I’m honestly relaxed in waiting for whatever comes next.