In Other Wor(l)ds: Katie in Israel

Katie in Israel

Katie Matthews is 23 years old, and currently lives in western Montana working as a research assistant for Project Vote Smart. She graduated in June 2013 from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in Political Science and a minor in Spanish. Katie did a study abroad in Jerusalem from late July 2011 until June 2012.

On Choosing Israel: I thought I wanted to study Middle Eastern politics, a dream I have since given up. The UC system at the time had three programs in the Middle East: Jerusalem, Turkey, and Egypt. I wanted to study Arabic in an immersion program and I considered the Egypt program too far away from Cairo, so I decided on Jerusalem.

On Getting Around: There are so many things that pleasantly surprised me during my study abroad in Israel (who would have guessed Israel has amazing sushi?). A major one that comes to mind is the public transportation—you can get around to any part of the country using the bus system. Also, when I first arrived in Jerusalem, the city had just finished building a train that traveled from the far east of the city to the far west really quickly. Bonus: the train was free for the first couple of months so that people were enticed into using it!


The tram in Jerusalem.

On The Unexpected: One thing that I did not expect about Israel was the amount of immigrants. I encountered tons of people from or with parents from Russia and Ethiopia in particular. There were also a lot of Jewish Americans, French, and South Americans that had recently moved to Israel. Also, there is a huge gay community in Jerusalem. Maybe I didn’t expect this because the city is so religious and conservative, but I met many individuals in Jerusalem that were open about their sexuality. I knew that Tel Aviv was incredibly liberal and home to one of the world’s largest gay parades, but Jerusalem really surprised me. There was even a popular club in the city that hosted a weekly drag show.

On Legal Drinking: One challenge about doing a study abroad in Israel had nothing to do with Israel itself—it was the sudden ability to drink legally. I was only 20 years old and I was suddenly an ocean away from my parents, legally permitted to order alcohol. Also, Israelis are much more independent than their American peers, possibly because most Israelis have served in the army and lived under harsh conditions by the time they turn 21. The freedom to drink with people much more mature than myself was difficult to adjust to.

On Food: The falafel in Jerusalem was to die for and it was everywhere and it was cheap—the perfect trifecta. I haven’t ordered falafel since coming back, maybe because I don’t want to spoil the taste I remember. Another one of my favorite foods was this salad that one of my roommates used to make all the time. It had diced tomatoes and cucumbers with mint and lemon squeezed on top. Really simple but mouthwatering. My favorite drink was called limonana, basically just lemonade with mint in it, which we would all buy at 8 a.m. on our way to class, since it was so hot when we first arrived in the summer.


Pita, falafel and hummus.

On Reception to Foreigners: Israelis were very welcoming in general. If I spoke Hebrew in town and came off like I was trying to do and try local things, I felt that people were accepting and warm. I was very fortunate, as were many of my peers, to be invited to several Shabbot dinners and other Jewish holiday celebrations. Some of the best food I tried in Israel was served to us at these feasts. (And worst food: horseradish and gafilta fish at Passover dinner, I’m looking at you.) There were few times that I felt stereotyped as an American. Jerusalem sees so many tourists, I assume that the locals are used to seeing people come and go with similar agendas and stories.

On Safety: Overall I felt very safe. As with any place, traveling alone as a woman in Israel can be dangerous. There are always a few people that might take advantage of young travelers. I avoided walking around alone at night and through rougher neighborhoods that we had been warned about and I was fine.

That being said, there were certain instances that were unsettling. One time a young man, around 19 years old, was slowly surrounded and then apprehended by Israeli security forces while I was in the same train car as him because he was carrying a bomb inside his backpack. There was another time when my friend missed a couple days of school because of bomb warnings in her area. She lived in Ashdod near the Gaza border and her family spent these days in and out of their bomb shelter. (Nearly every house that I went into had at least one bomb-shelter room and our dorms each had one bedroom that doubled as a shelter.)

beach at tel aviv

My friend Lian and me in Tel Aviv

On the Israel-Palestine Conflict: I took a couple classes on the Israel-Palestine issue and I still have a hard time understanding most of the background. One point of tension stems from the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Israel builds communities inside the West Bank and sets up a small military presence in each one to monitor the flow of traffic in and out. I knew several people who lived in the settlements and I even hitchhiked with my good friend into one. Occasionally, I would hear racist and derogatory statements from all sides, but in general, the people I met at the university and on the street were progressive. Just like in the US, there were people I met in Israel that were on opposing sides of the argument, the only difference being that people in Israel might have been better informed because they live there. My opinion has changed since living in Israel. I now believe that it is nearly impossible to approach the situation objectively because people grow up with a cultural identity, believing that certain things are very important to them and I don’t feel I can judge.


The wall that divides Jerusalem and the West Bank.

On Attitudes: Israel felt very young and happy. One of my Israeli roommates told me that because she grew up in a place where people are often thinking about the survival of their country and heritage, she tended to live in the moment, appreciating the day for what is was. I noticed this all the time. People in Israel live it up. They party and hang out with friends and go to the beach and play music. Normally, I like to have a schedule planned out, at least tentatively of what I will do the coming week, but in Israel, my schedule was much more spontaneous and go-with-the-flow, and I appreciated that change.

On Language: I knew zero Hebrew before going to Jerusalem, but the University of California kids, along with some other programs, took an obligatory Hebrew immersion class. From the first second, the teachers spoke in Hebrew, using tons of hand motions and getting us to imitate certain phrases. Also, I worked at a couple bars pretty early on during my year abroad, so I was forced to pick up Hebrew quickly to talk to customers. I think the funnest word to say was “sababa.”  It means “cool” in both Arabic and Hebrew and we said it all the time because it felt good to know that it masked the American accent a little bit. The exchange students would sometimes talk amongst themselves using Hebrew. Even with my American friends, we would substitute words like “money” and “store” for their Hebrew equivalents.

On Travel: My favorite place I visited during my study abroad in Israel was Tel Aviv. I went there so many times with friends and it is such a young, happy city. The beaches there are to die for and there is a really amazing club scene. Public transportation, like in all other cities I visited in Israel, can take you anywhere in the city quickly and cheaply.

There are a lot of places to go to in such a small country: the Dead Sea, Haifa, Eilat, Jerusalem and its old city, Tel Aviv. Plus, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Hebron, and other important religious cities are just over an hour away from Jerusalem.

My biggest travel advice would be to say yes to everything!  You never know when you might stumble into something amazing.

jerusalem wailing wall

The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem

Take-Homes From a Year Abroad: I really value the relationships I made in Jerusalem. The Israelis and the other exchange students I met while studying abroad were such beautiful people. Although I keep in contact with my good friends I made in Jerusalem, there are some people that I know I will never see again, but I try to keep in mind and understand that they helped shape me during a really transformative year.

My time abroad really reinforced the idea that I want to live a more carefree life where I appreciate the little things. It’s advice we hear all the time, but witnessing Israelis live in the moment gave me a year’s worth of examples to reflect on.

sunset in telaviv

Sunset in Tel Aviv

Thanks so much, Katie! It’s wonderful to hear about your experiences!

In Other Wor(l)ds is a series of interviews with young women who have lived, traveled, or worked for an extensive period of time OUTSIDE of Europe and the U.S., since the travel posts on A Thing For Wor(l)ds tend to be a bit Euro-focused. (I’m based in Spain, after all :) 

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  • Wow, what a change it must be to go from Western Montana to Israel. Thank you for taking us on your journey through your eyes.

  • You don’t hear too much about Israel, much less Jerusalem, outside of Birthright – super interesting to hear from someone who studied abroad there! I actually had no idea until last year that Tel Aviv has killer beaches. Between that and the legendary falafel, I’m sold!

  • What an interesting read. I can honestly say I don’t know anyone that’s been to Jerusalem so I appreciate this information. I’ve been hearing tons of great things about Tel Aviv lately, too.

    • Jenny

      I agree, Francesca, I’ve heard of lots of people going to Israel through the program Birthrite but none who actually lived there like Katie. It’s giving me itchy travel feet again. . . .

  • Reading this makes me want to go back to Israel and live in the moment. Thanks for sharing your experience and beautiful photos.

    • Jenny

      Mindi, you’ve been to Israel? Reading this makes me want to go for a first time!