Studying Abroad During COVID-19

Cohort 6 of The Nachshon Project. Opening Conference 2020. (courtesy)

The summer before my freshman year of college, I was first introduced to The Nachshon Project, a semester-long study abroad program in Jerusalem that brought together Jews from North America who were interested in being Jewish professionals. Through the program, participants were able to explore their Jewish identity, listen to speakers and understand how they could be a Jewish Professional in North America. 

From the moment I heard about this program, I knew that it would be perfect for me, and on November 3, 2019, I received my acceptance into The Nachshon Project and was invited to be a part of Cohort 6.  

I’m not going to lie, as the months slowly turned into weeks, and weeks into hours, I was nervous. I had only been to Israel twice before – once in eighth grade for two weeks with my Day School and once on Birthright with some of my best friends. The thought of going 5,000 miles away from home terrified me, but I knew that this program took my passion and turned it into a reality. 

When finally in Israel, it took me a while to get into the hang of things. I could no longer jump into my car and drive somewhere if I needed something. While I speak enough Hebrew to get by, I had to take language into account. And the hardest part, while I was used to sleeping in on Sunday’s, having brunch with my family and watching TV the rest of the day, I now had Ulpan bright and early Sunday morning, followed by special Nachshon programming. 

However, quickly I realized just how special and lucky I was to be a part of this program. As a pluralistic program I was able to truly understand each denomination of Judaism, hearing from different speakers about their jobs, their ideologies and what makes them them. 

Through Nachshon, we had monthly Shabbatonim, a Shabbat where our Cohort would come together and devote the weekend to learning, both from each other, from speakers and from Biblical text.

On our first Shabbaton, we stayed in the Talpiot area of Jerusalem. We heard from an Orthodox Rabbi from Midreshet Lindenbaum. He shared his viewpoints of Judaism through an Orthodox lens. We heard a Conservative Rabbi speak about his understanding of the Conservative movement. We toured the Belz Yeshiva, an ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Orthodox neighborhood. And we heard a Reform Rabbi speak about the importance of sticking up for what you believe it, especially in your own denomination. 

These speakers allowed me to question my identity, ask difficult questions and be okay with not having answers just yet. 

While our programming and classes continued, the growing fear of the Coronavirus increased. The Rabbis gave us frequent updates about Israel’s policies and precautions taken towards COVID-19. 

However, we slowly began to lose that typical abroad experience.

 No leaving the country. No large gatherings. No public transportation. No small gatherings. 

As Netanyahu stood on the podium and explained how there were to be less than 10 people in a room at once, we knew that our time in Israel was over.

Hebrew University placed all their classes online over Zoom, as did The Nachshon Project. 

I left Israel three days later. 

It didn’t seem real, and honestly still doesn’t. 

While I sat at home and processed what had happened, the Rabbis of the program quickly jumped into superhero mode, changing our schedule completely and placing everything online. 

My learning in Israel still continues. I continue to explore my Jewish identity, understanding how important it is to secure a Jewish future in North America. I still have my weekly Beit Midrash classes, learning every Tuesday about the Heroines in the Talmud. We still had our monthly Shabbaton, learning ‘Mi Ani, Mi Anachnu’, ‘Who am I, Who are We’.

While not physically together we are able to learn together, study together and continue on building fight friendships that will last a lifetime.

About the Author
Samantha Brenner is a junior from Bergen County, New Jersey studying Jewish Studies and English at Muhlenberg College. She is currently on her semester abroad, studying for five months at Hebrew University in Jerusalem with The Nachshon Project.
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