Thursday, April 21, 2011

Oh, the places you'll go: Reflections on Study Abroad

When I was a junior at Muhlenberg, I (with four of my sorority sisters) decided to bid adieu to Muhlenberg College and spend our spring semester in Florence, Italy. Those five months spent in Italy were the best—we traveled, ate lots of pasta, drank copious amounts of wine and immersed ourselves into a beautiful country and culture.

Phi Sigma Sigma does Rome (2009)

When I first came back to the States, all I wanted to do was talk about Italy, and much to my friends dismay, not so much has changed in two years. Studying abroad was without a doubt, the highlight of my undergraduate career. Simply put, I fell in love with Florence.

On April 8, the University of Florida Hillel staff traveled to Israel to learn about a partnership with the University of Haifa for study abroad. The University of Haifa is beautiful. Standing outside in what is the equivalent of a quad in the US, one looks over the ocean, out at mountains and at the city below. It is a quaint and picturesque place to spend a semester abroad.

Josh, Blair, Jess & Jeff chomping over Haifa!

We spent most of our time in meetings with the International School staff, touring the campus and sitting in classes. With every second spent on Haifa’s campus, I missed my study abroad experience even more. The more I learned about Haifa’s program, the more homesick I became for my own study abroad semester.

While on the phone with my mom, discussing everything we had seen and done, she asked “Do you wish you studied in Israel instead?” The truth is, after my first trip to Israel for Birthright in Winter 2008, I thought about withdrawing my Florence application and submitting one to study in Jerusalem. I had become enchanted with a country I had spent a whirlwind ten days in. Knowing that my first decision was my best, I kept my application to go to Italy and to this day, I have not a single regret. So of course, my answer to her was “Not for a second”. But in all fairness, if I had a chance to do it for a second time, a part of me would want to study in Haifa.

I always say it and to this day I still believe it: Studying abroad is the best gift that you can give yourself. A person has no idea what they are capable of or what they are made of until they are in a country that is foreign. You become smarter, more adept and learn to improvise. You learn a new language, navigate a public transportation system and become ok with being lost all the time. Things that seem important in the US, like cable TV and fast internet, seem insignificant when you have historic sites outside your window. A sense of independence is gained and upon returning to the US, you feel accomplished, matured and worldly.

In the end, it does not matter where you go or where you choose to study. I love Florence because I lived it—the culture, the people and the unbelievably chic clothing. But my experiences at Haifa only solidified my belief that each student should study abroad and feel a connection to the place they choose. There is a big, beautiful world outside of our Orange and Blue and I urge you to consider exploring it. I promise you won’t look back.

*This blog was written by our Jewish Student Life Coordinator Jessica. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Jess_davis78!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


What a flashback! It’s feels like yesterday that I was studying in an Israeli classroom discussing the 1948 Israeli War for Independence. Now, almost four years after completing my undergraduate degree – I’m back in class with Professor Yisrael Neeman discussing early Zionist history! Except this time I’m sitting next to the entire UF Hillel staff.

Being back in Israel is always exciting, but to share this experience with Keith, Jeff, Jess, and especially Blair is quite the adventure. We started the day with another delicious Israeli breakfast (although I think one of us here would rather be snackin’ on a McGriddle) and made our way to the University. We were warmly greeted by Marketing Coordinator Ellie Schneiderman and met the staff of the International school. We then made our way to the Law building for Hebrew class! Keith, Jeff, Jess and Blair were sent to the beginners group while I checked out the advanced class. Unlike their class (where they played musical chairs in Hebrew) our class was pretty intense as the students were preparing for a mid-term before the Passover break.

Being in Hebrew class brought me back to when I first immigrated to Israel. All new immigrants are offered a free intensive Hebrew course called Ulpan and I spent nearly 5 months in 2004 studying Hebrew in central Israel. Hebrew classes in Israel are like a mini-melting pot of society. People of all ages, backgrounds, and education level sit together working to master a new language. The class today in Haifa included students from Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Korea, Germany, and the US. There was a doctor, lawyer, and even a nuclear physicist all struggling together. Hebrew class was followed by a great lunch in the school’s cafeteria where we finally figured out how to connect to the Internet (which now means it’s impossible to tear Blair away from her iPad). After we filled our bellies with some tasty Israeli food we met up with two students currently studying at the International School.

They led us on a tour of the campus and let us know what being a student here is really like. These students were awesome and really love studying here. And now – here we are – in class learning about Israeli history! Jeff and Blair are having a hard time staying awake, but I’m loving it! Jess struggled at first but luckily she was able to hunt down a double espresso during the break. We are now listening to a student’s presentation about Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel – a topic that’s close to my heart. Professor Neeman, like myself, moved from New Jersey to Israel and I can think of no better person to impart the importance of Israeli history to a classroom of students. It is important to study and learn about the trials and hardships a young Israel faced in absorbing a large immigrant population, and having it taught by someone who chose to make Israel their home adds a unique perspective. It appears that my journey has come full circle—I left New Jersey for Israel, temporarily left Israel for Gainesville and now I am back in my homeland, sitting in a room full of students, who are building the connection to Israel that is critical for Jewish students to have. Can’t wait to party with the students tonight! -Josh (me in the IDF - 2008)
(Me in 2008)

Monday, April 11, 2011

The staff's first update from Israel

If you haven't heard the UF Hillel staff is in Haifa, here's why: Holy cow! The last 48 hours have been jam packed with traveling to Israel from Gainesville. I want to give you all an update of what we've been doing and share some photos and videos. This is program director Jeff, btw. In case you were wondering... So we left Gville with me, Blair, Keith, Jess, and Dewey in a mini-van. It looked like this: Dewey was a pain in the tuchas the whole way down. We all split up and met at the Miami airport the next day, that's when Josh came. We flew MIA -->JFK 2 hour layover -->Tel Aviv. I wish I could tell you more about that but after a sleeping aid and some complimentary wine I awoke in Israel. Best. Flight. Ever. So we get on a train to Haifa and the 5 of us are talking about our itinerary. A nice english speaking lady joins our conversation, as Israelis tend to do, and after a while we find out Josh went to college with her daughter. Not only that but he also had been to her house several times. Not only that but Josh has a t-shirt that belongs to her son. NOT ONLY THAT but Josh's parents even met her when they lived in Israel. "Its a small country" said Josh. We get to Haifa, check in to our swanky hotel and went out to a superb asian fusion restaraunt a short walk from the hotel. It was like this: As a side note I can't take a picture with Blair without making a stupid face. I'll really try to take a regular one. After dinner we all went back to crash. I woke up the next morning at 5 am to finish a grant for Hillel Intl. I also saw an amazing sunrise over the Carmel Mountain. It was like this:I finished the grant around 7:45-8am and went to Aroma. The best coffee in the world. Oh yea, at around 9 pm I got an email that the grant deadline was extended 4 days. We all met for breakfast in the dining room of the hotel then went to the University of Haifa to meet with the MASA staff. MASA is long-term study/work/volunteer programs in Israel. They took us to Akko, an ancient crusader/Ottoman city to visit with an internship group that works in historic preservation. Here are some pics: These pictures include the Templars Tunnel, outer citadel wall, inner courtyard, and the students working on the preservation. The program is called 'Saving the Stones'. These students preserve this almost thousand year old fortress/castle while gaining incredible work experience. After Akko we went to explore Haifa. Josh had a 5 hour debacle at the mall over getting a phone to use here with his sim card while we toured the German Colony. We ended up eating at an Arab restaraunt, in the German Colony, in Haifa. We talk about how this is a city of amazing and beautiful coexistence, and this is what we mean by that. No Arab-Israeli seperations, no fighting, no "issues". Just lots of good food, great company, and lots and lots and lots of updating our social networks. Let me explain...we all have iPhones. Almost this entire city has free wireless. We are all addicted to social media. Go to Twitter, right now. Look up @bigvorch, @jess_davis78, @israelisoldier, @ufhillel, and @jeffdude. Follow us. It is by far the best way to keep up with us over here. We will tweet back almost immediately to answer questions, post pictures, and share funny videos. To finish up I'll share 2 links. The first is a video. I dared Jessica to eat a spoonful of chocolate cake, ice cream, whipped cream and and olive. Jessica succeeded. Never to be outdone, I up the ante. I eat the cake, ice cream, whipped cream, added a pretzel, and pitted olive. My goal was to eat evrything and produce a clean pit. As in chew it all up together, mixing sweet delicious hot fudge and briny hard olives, while having the dextereity to chew all the meat off the olive, swallow everything except the pit, and deliver it to Jess. I'll let the video speak for itself: Tomorrow morning we are going to a Hebrew class, touring campus, meeting students, and going to a campus fun/social/music jam event. I took about 100 photos today and am slowly getting them online. Stay posted and you'll hear from us soon! -Jeff

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Quadruple Whammy...

So, I love Torah on Tap.

A little beer, some pizza, and GREAT conversation. But tonight will be extra special (the quadruple whammy).

We are proud to have the attendance of three-time United States Olympian and 2010 Gold Medalist in 4-man bobsled, Steve Mesler.

I had heard a little about Steve Mesler, as he is a University of Florida alumni, but I didn't feel like I knew enough about him to adequately write about why we were so excited to have him here.

So I started to do a little research...thank you, Google!

Steve Mesler is a motivational speaker, Olympian, CEO and member of the Classroom Champions Board of Directors. He has spoken at universities all over the US, including his alma mater UF. When does the man sleep?

I also found out he has the largest Twitter following of any male team-sport Winter Olympian in the world, currently at over 40,000... ummm, can you see why?

We are very excited to have this motivational speaker with us tonight on the back porch of Leonardo's pizza. Be there at 9 for the pizza, beer, great conversation and Olympian.

“Be that person you would want to be inspired by. No matter what you do, kids are going to look up to you just as you looked up to others who were successful. Be that inspiration you wanted.” -Steve Mesler.

See you all at Torah on Tap tonight at 9!

This post was written by our public relations intern, Jordan Barrish.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

UF Hillel Staff Travels to Israel Next Week

This upcoming week UF Hillel staff will be traveling to Israel, most notably Haifa and Tel Aviv, thanks to a generous grant from MASA Israel and University of Haifa. The staff including: the Executive Director, Executive Assistant, Program Director, Jewish Student Life Coordinator, and Israel Fellow, will be spending eight days in Israel engaging in different aspects of the University of Haifa program.

University of Haifa recently coordinated with the University of Florida to develop a study abroad program for UF students. This program counts for direct UF credits and can be funded through Bright Futures and Florida Pre-paid scholarships. MASA Israel will also fund an additional $1,000-$4,000 for interested students. There is still availability for UF students to participate in this program this Fall. Contact Josh Kahn at for more information.

After this trip to Israel, the staff will have experienced firsthand the unique experience of studying at the University of Haifa. They will be able to knowledgeably promote the program to UF students, while also being able to discuss, based on their personal accounts, study abroad programs, volunteer programs, and other unique experiences that MASA Israel offers to students.

As an intern at UF Hillel, I have had the honor to work with the UF Hillel staff on a daily basis. Their passion and dedication to the work of UF Hillel is truly something to be celebrated. The fact that they are taking time from their busy and exhausting lives as UF Hillel staff to travel to Israel and engage in more meetings, speeches, and ultimately working for the betterment of UF students is a feat that should not go unrecognized.

I am also serving as the next Israel Manoa position, and thus have a passion for the pro-Israel community at UF. The fact that UF Hillel staff is so dedicated to travel to Israel and engage in work to better the opportunities for the UF community’s relation with the University of Haifa, also resonates strongly with myself and many other students committed to the pro-Israel community.

UF Hillel will also be staffing and organizing three Birthright trips this upcoming May for UF Students. Altogether, UF Hillel will be bringing 120 Jewish Gators to Israel in May to experience an Israel Experts Taglit-Birthright trip.

I just recently attended an IsraelExperts Birthright Trip this past winter as my first trip to Israel. The trip was a life-changing experience, due not only to the unique itinerary but also to my fantastic staff who dedicated so much of themselves to ensure that I got the most out of the trip. I must say that I am jealous of these 120 Gators, not just because they get to attend a Birthright trip, but because of the awesome UF Hillel staff that will be bringing them to Israel. UF Hillel staff after this trip to Israel will be better prepared for staffing these Birthright trips, while already asserting their dedication and passion for ensuring that these trips will be life changing experiences for all 120 students.

Look out for more details on the staff’s trip to Israel next week!