Kari Hochwald

How does the disconnected, apathetic student become involved Jewishly when they come from a background of not having many Jewish friends or enjoying their synagogue experience back home?

For me, it was through a lot of luck and a spark of interest. During my junior year at the University of Florida, I worked part-time advertising for Schwinn Bicycle Company. During my first month of work, I ended up at the same spot on campus as Hillel’s shaliach (emissary) as he recruited for Taglit-Birthright Israel. After weeks of sitting near each other, he learned I was Jewish and convinced me to sign up for the trip through my Hillel – though at that point I was a bit jaded after having been waitlisted for two years in a row. In May 2011, I went to Israel and, like many Birthright alumni I quickly fell in love with the country. During a whirlwind of ten days I was flooded with new information, yet ready for much more.

My last year of college was also my first year of involvement at UF Hillel. This ranged from program attendee to Birthright recruiter; from UF Israel intern to Masa Israel Journey intern to helping found the University of Florida’s Zionist Gators group. It also led to my last summer job (or first post-college job) as a Hillel Greeter/Secretary to continue my engagement work before moving to Israel.

Through Hillel, I learned about Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, which caught my attention and stuck with me. As a fourth year student, I regretted never studying abroad and I was intent on continuing to foster my relationship with Israel, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Although I spent months looking for “real jobs,” this program always stayed in the back of my mind, until I finally submitted my application and had the pleasure of letting my parents know their child would soon be living away from home – thousands of miles away – for a year.

To explain what I do as a teaching fellow in Rehovot, Israel, I could simply say that my program involves teaching English at a middle school to small groups of pupils for 25 hours a week, and that I participate in Ulpan (intensive Hebrew study) and other enrichment programs in the afternoons – yet it has been so much more than that. Hearing Hebrew daily and attempting to respond, exploring the rest of the country on the weekends, discussing, discussing, and re-discussing Israel’s very complicated and controversial past/present/future, seeing these controversies with my own eyes rather than from a biased media source, celebrating Yom Kippur, Chanukah, Purim, and other holidays with an entire country, engaging in meaningful work and meeting Jews from around the world… life in Israel may be hectic at times, but it is always dynamic.

My Israel experience has been extremely beneficial for what I would like to do when I arrive home. This is not simply limited to gaining more knowledge about Israel and Israel advocacy by living in the country for ten months. So many aspects of Israeli life, as well as partaking in my program, have provided me with many unexpected tools. The main tool is becoming used to being pushed out of my comfort zone. From emotional group meetings where personal feelings are shared, to living communally with 26 other people, to trying to understand and be active in a country where you have little grasp of the language, to learning to deal with Israeli chutzpah, every day is another lesson in how important it is to take yourself out of your comfort zone and experience something you would normally miss out on.

Working at an Israeli school is also included under this umbrella. The order and strictness of the American school system are lost here. Working each day with students whose weaknesses range completely across the spectrum has helped my problem-solving skills as well as improvisation when lesson plans fall through. Learning a new foreign language while trying to teach a native one has been imperative to helping me see the perspective of the students I’m working with, which is necessary when working in any community and trying to understand their position.

Life in Israel isn’t easy, but the experience I’ve been provided and the meaningfulness of the country to my life motivates me continue the advocacy work I started in college.

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida

College: University of Florida

Major: English

City in Israel: Rehovot

Fellowship Year: 2012-2013

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