Choose Your Own Adventure

Navigating Israel’s Challenges While Building a Better Brain

Exactly six months ago today, I landed at Ben Gurion Airport and began my Israel journey. Little did I know that my “summer trip” would turn into a year-long adventure (which might even transform into a life-long home…)

As I reflect back on the challenges and triumphs of the past 184 days, I can’t help but laugh at the multitude of “Israel moments” that tested my sanity. I’ve long believed that we should view each challenge as an opportunity to practice new ways of thinking: to become less reactive, more resilient, more in control. Since Israel is full of challenges, it is the perfect place to rewire our neural networks and build a calmer, happier brain.

To demonstrate what I’m talking about, let’s play a little game. Here’s how it works: I’m going to describe a scenario and you need to pick the best response. (*All scenarios are based on actual experiences.)

Scenario 1

You just spent over two hours at the bank trying to open an account. You signed what felt like two million forms and have absolutely no idea what any of them said. Fellow Times of Israel blogger Tehilla Katz put it perfectly: “For all I know, I could have sold my kidneys to some shady organization in the Congo. I don’t even care, I just kept signing to make the forms go away.” You finally succeed in opening the account but leave the bank feeling frustrated and drained. You have two options:

  1. Mope about it for the rest of the night (or month) and wonder how you will ever make it in this country. 
  2. Congratulate yourself on enduring a challenging round of Israeli bureaucracy and strengthen yourself for the next one…which brings us to our next scenario!

Scenario 2

It is your third trip to Misrad Hapnim (Ministry of Interior) in your desperate attempt to secure a visa. You’ve spent a total of 10 hours in the building with nothing to show for it since the clerks keep requesting different documents. This time, you are absolutely positive you have everything: your original birth certificate hand-delivered from America, your Masa acceptance letter, passport, even a letter from your rabbi (you know, just in case). You waltz up to the counter excited to put this chapter behind you forever. The clerk leafs through your documents and says: “Sorry, I also need copies of your parents’ passports.” What?! It would be one thing if it wasn’t 3:00 AM in America and you could frantically call your parents, praying they pick up and send you pictures of their passports. But that’s not an option. You try arguing like a true Israeli, but the clerk won’t budge. In fact, she kicks you out of the booth. Now what…?

You have two choices:

  1. Panic and accept defeat. Leave Misrad Hapnim empty-handed for the third time in a row. Cry to your parents. Come back yet again when you work up the koach (strength). 
  2. Stay calm and be proactive. Find the supervisor and plead your case (a few tears are okay). Watch in amazement as the supervisor yells at the clerk and makes her give you the visa. (*Note: I know you can’t always get this lucky, in which case the scenario is even better practice for maintaining composure in the face of absurd circumstances.)

Scenario 3

Your Amazon package was supposed to arrive three weeks ago but it’s nowhere to be found. Amazon’s tracking page tells you, “Your package may be lost” but you know it’s really just stuck in some Israeli mailroom. You were psyched when Amazon announced free shipping over $49 to Israel, but that excitement quickly turned to disappointment. You have a few options: 

  1. Sulk about your misfortune. “How can a country that delivers some of the most sophisticated technology fail to deliver a simple package?!” “Life is so much easier in America.” Blah, blah, blah…
  2. Give yourself a reality check. “This is just part of living in Israel. If I wanted an easy life filled with Amazon packages and great customer service, I would live in America. I didn’t come to Israel for comfort or convenience—I came to Israel for meaning.” 
  3. Laugh (enough said). 

I could write a book filled with countless more “Israel moments,” but I think you get the point. All of these experiences can either tear us down or build us up, depending on how we choose to respond. 

“Ultimately, we are all teaching,” writes Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg of Kids Kicking Cancer. “Our children, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and strangers are watching how we respond to life.” 

Do we go into panic mode when faced with a problem? Or do we use our rational brain to respond calmly? The choice is ours. Now don’t get me wrong, we don’t always have to be mindful superstars. I certainly know I’m not. Yet each time we redirect our minds from panic to peace, we build new neural networks that grow stronger and stronger the more they are used. 

So while I might have been initially aggravated about my lost Amazon package (which eventually turned up), I finally decided to shift my perspective. The next time it happens, I’ll hopefully be able to switch mindsets sooner since my brain has done it before. 

The ability of our brains to change is called neuroplasticity, and it gives us incredible power. We can rewire our brains by changing our thoughts, consciously switching from panic to peace. When we choose to practice new ways of thinking, literally everything that happens to us becomes an opportunity for growth—and we become invincible.

May we all find the strength to navigate life’s challenges mindfully, building better brains along the way.

(To learn more about neuroplasticity and the incredible power of our minds, check out Norman Doidge’s work here.)

About the Author
Manya Goldstein is a Rutgers University journalism graduate teaching English in Jerusalem for the year as a Masa Israel Teaching Fellow. She is fascinated by health, science and neuroplasticity.
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