American students bring Thanksgiving’s message of coexistence to the Middle East

masa middle east This Thanksgiving, holiday traditions and messages are going farther than the family dinner table. In fact, they are going all the way to the Middle East as American young adults spending time abroad will be spreading the message of coexistence throughout diverse communities by recreating the Thanksgiving feast from their childhood.

Masa Israel Journey, a project of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli Government, sends more than 6,000 young Americans to Israel each year to study, intern, and volunteer, as well as spread a peaceful and harmonious message. Diverse groups of people such as Arabs, Israeli Jews, Palestinians, Europeans, and American peers are all positively affected by the introduction and blending of Thanksgiving traditions.

Some examples of how American young adults have spread their traditions and the message of coexistence include:

  • Abra Berkowitz, a Boston-native who studied at Masa Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, shared a potluck dinner with other students from Jordan, Isreael, the Palestinian Territories, South Africa, Canada, and Australia. A blending of cultures could be seen by a turkey seasoned with zaatar and a side dish of tahini stuffing.
  • Detroit-born Josh Kanter, who enrolled in Masa Israel’s Career Israel internship program, celebrated Thanksgiving at a Herbrew University-sponsored dinner with other international students from Argentina, Uruguay, Guatemala, Israel, and the United States. While there was turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, hummus was also a big hit at the table.
  • Jessica Simon from Philadelphia, who studied at Masa Israel’s Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, was also volunteering at Jerusalem Open House, the organization that supports LGBT people and their allies in Jerusalem. She planned a Thanksgiving potluck and read from a gay friendly prayer book with Hebrew explanations about Thanksgiving to the Israeli attendees. Because sweet potatoes were not available, Simon substituted them with carrot soup.

For information on Masa Israel Journey and how they help spread the message of coexistence, click here.

Blogger Jessica Festa

Introducing another new blogger at Gadling, Jessica Festa…

Where was your photo taken:

On Manganari Beach in Ios, Greece

Where do you live now:

Long Island, New York, but planning to move into the city by the end of the year

Scariest airline flown:

To be honest, I have never been scared to fly, even on really turbulent flights. If you asked me what my scariest plane ride was, however, I would definitely say the one right before I skydived in New Zealand!

Favorite city/country/place:

That is really tough, as I love every place I have ever traveled too for a different reason. However, if I had to choose I would probably say Sydney, Australia, because I studied abroad there and really felt like I got to know the city having an apartment there, a job, a gym membership, my favorite cafe, etc… The street I lived on was filled with bars, galleries, restaurants, shopping…It was just such a lively area. I also never got sick of walking to Darling Harbour in the mornings, sitting by the water, strolling through the Botanical Gardens, and passing by the many street markets in Sydney.

Most remote corner of the globe visited:

Hmmmm, I’d have to say in Chiang Rai, Thailand, when I stayed in the Akha Village. Just to get to our teaching placements, which were also in very rural areas, we had to walk 2-3 miles each morning. I absolutely love getting away from the big cities, though!

Favorite guidebook series:

I have actually only used guidebooks to plan one trip, as I usually wait to get to a place and ask locals as well as other backpackers what they recommend, or sometimes I’ll read some travel blogs. However, I will say that I love Rick Steve’s guidebooks. I used his as well as two others when I backpacked Europe and I felt that his recommendations and advice were a lot more useful and thoughtful than the other books.

Hotel, Hostel, or Other:

I’m a huge fan of hostels! Not only because they are cheaper (even if they were more expensive than a hotel I would stay at them) but because they are so social and fun. I have met many other backpackers in hostels that I have ended up traveling with in other places. I will also say that I am a big fan of home stays. I have done two of them and loved the experience of really getting to see the region I am in through the perspective of a local.

How did you get started traveling:

Growing up my family always liked to do road trips to different states. Then when I was around 15 my best friend Jenn and I got our families to plan a joint cruise to Bermuda, and from there we ended up going on cruises every summer together until we graduated. I got started on international travel after I studied abroad in Sydney, Australia, backpacking on the weekends and stopping in New Zealand and Fiji on the way home. I literally became addicted and started planning my next trip (which ended up being teaching English in Thailand backpacking South East Asia, China, and Hong Kong) immediately.

Most Recent Trip:

I actually just got back a couple weeks ago from Ghana in Africa. I did some orphanage work there, which I absolutely loved, and also got to travel to some of the historical as well as natural areas of the country. What was really appealing to me here was the rich culture of music, dancing, and drumming. I seriously wish people in New York danced in the streets more, and that there was always music playing in the background.

Worst Hotel Experience:

It was actually in a hostel. My FIRST hostel, of course (and honestly, I have not had a bad experience in the 100 other hostels I have stayed in, go figure!). My friends and I were in Brisbane, Australia, staying at this hostel that immediately seemed really sketchy when we walked in. There were clumps of hair all over the bathroom floor and everything seemed damp and had bugs. It was so bad that I refused to pee all night. The people in our room seemed a little shady as well, and at 2 AM I was woken up to a drug deal going down on the bed below me. Let’s just say I slept hugging all my stuff the entire night.

Travel diary: How I found acceptance in a Spanish hospital

spanish granadaAvid travelers wear the title of “wanderer” like a badge of honor.

I know I do – I never completely related to my peers in my small Nebraska hometown. My brain was always dreaming, always scheming for ways to create the life I wanted – and that didn’t include Nebraska.

I fell in love with Spain as a teen – the architecture and culture drew me in with its passionate allure and never let go. It seemed only natural that I’d spend a semester studying there.

I sent for my student visa, packed my bags and traveled to the Alhambra-lined horizon of Granada, Spain, in early 2004.

“You’re living with Senora Cordon,” the director told me as we arrived one rainy January night. My host mother — a plump Spanish woman with perfectly-coifed blond hair and dozens of leopard-print scarves – was genuinely interested in my well-being. So far, so good.

My elation soon turned into a routine of class, class and more class. The school, an offshoot of the Universidad de Granada, was filled with American students — not exactly the multicultural experience I envisioned.

[Photo: Flickr/*CezCze* (off-line)]
I started to feel isolated — I wasn’t connecting with fellow students, a problem I chalked up to being shy. Many of my classmates partied nightly; I opted for shopping at El Corte Ingles.

I was unhappy – sad that my experience wasn’t turning into the supreme adventure I envisioned, sad that I was wasting the opportunity.

Sad until I woke up one morning with a decision: I had to make the most of my time in Spain and find a way to connect with the country. I soon happened on a volunteer opportunity with Hospital Materno Infantil Virgen de las Nieves, a dusty and run-down hospital perched high above Granada.

The hospital treated children with cancer and it was our job to entertain them. Each Tuesday I made the 30-minute walk and took the elevator up several floors until I was greeted by young laughter. Language barriers kept us from fluently communicating, but tea sets and toy trucks had a way of bridging the gap.

The young faces were familiar each week – until my final visit. A new boy, tiny and timid, stood out.

I felt an immediate connection to him and we spent much of the hour-long session coloring. Afterward, I walked into the hallway as he followed. His parents were in the hallway and I immediately recognized them as Gitanos, or Gypsies with Romani ancestry. Gitanos are generally not well liked, thanks to their lingering reputation as pickpockets – so that explained some of his playroom apprehension.

He walked over and whispered something to his parents and they looked at me with wide-eyes and shy smiles. I returned the smile and their appreciation.

Walking home that night I realized something: We’re all searching for acceptance, no matter what language we speak or customs we follow. I found acceptance from that small family.

Do I feel completely accepted now?

No, but that’s why I travel: I end up finding a piece of myself in each place I visit.

A Single Square of Christmas

“Here,” she gestured. “Try this,” and I opened my mouth. The chocolate landed on my tongue and began to melt. It was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. It reminded me of the carob chips foisted upon me during my mother’s hippy stage. It was also a bit like the Hershey’s Special Dark miniatures I always traded for my sister’s Mr. Goodbars at Halloween. But this chocolate was definitely a distant cousin to the more familiar wrapped in silver or covering a mixture of peanuts, caramel, and nougat. I was in heaven.

“What is it?” I mumbled around the square melting on my tongue.

“That is what Cadbury’s calls a bittersweet. I think it tastes just like Christmas.”

And with that, my friend Tan’s grandmother wrestled off the tin’s lid and brandished another chocolate like it was pirate’s treasure. “Ah, this one’s a caramel. Go on, try it. It’s gorgeous.”

Cadbury’s? The makers of those heinous chocolate eggs filled with sugary goo and made to mimic real chicken eggs? That Cadbury’s? I was incredulous. And the tin can? The only thing I’d ever seen sold in a tin can that size was the popcorn trifecta sold by the Boy Scouts. Never had I witnessed such an assortment of chocolate in one place. This was certainly no drug store Whitman’s Sampler, the likes of which my mother had been tucking into my Christmas stocking for as long as I could remember. Christmas always included many variations of chocolate in my childhood home, but I had never celebrated Christmas with a taste quite like this.

I sat there that Christmas Eve, on a stranger’s floral couch, happily savoring each chocolate that Gran handed me. Periodically, she’d find a new flavor and tell me a bit of a story such as the first time she tasted a raspberry-filled, prefaced with “isn’t it lovely, dear?” But most of that time was spent in a chocolate- and silence-filled companionship. I’m not sure what filled Gran’s thoughts, but mine circled about what I had blithely left behind in Oregon.

The time came for us to bundle against the cold and walk to Midnight Mass. I’d never been to a Christmas Eve service anywhere before, and I approached that service with the attitude of a scientist. That night I would sit among believers and witness their hullabaloo. I certainly doubted the experience would have any impact on my agnostic self.

And yet, twenty years later, I can still hear the crunch of snow beneath my shoes and feel the wind bite at my neck as it snaked its way beneath my collar. It was a short walk through the village from Tan’s house to the church, but it was a cold one. Not much slows the wind across England, and Oxford’s distant towers and spires certainly offered no resistance to that winter storm. I was sniffling with the cold by the time I took my seat on that worn pew, snuggled between my college friend and a neighbor who smelled of damp wool and cough drops.

That is what Cadbury’s calls a bittersweet. I think it tastes just like Christmas.

I have but a vague recollection of the minister’s homily. But I do remember the terrible weight of homesickness that fell upon me for the first time ever. Sitting there, the lone foreigner in that small stone church, hearing about family and love, I suddenly wanted the Christmas I knew my family was having without me. I wanted snickerdoodles and Russian teacakes, a Douglas fir covered in both glass and hand-made ornaments, giggling siblings. I wanted to gather the ingredients for my mom’s fudge, pull out the stained recipe card, and butter the dented baking dish. I wanted the same Christmas traditions I’d been celebrating for as long as I could remember but couldn’t remember ever really thinking about. Suddenly, the 5,000 miles between us made me hunger for my family’s Christmas — something I couldn’t purchase regardless of my Visa card’s available credit limit.

That night, lying in my borrowed bed, paid for with household tasks and stories of Americana, I ached for my family back home in Oregon. For nearly five months, my only contact with them had been letters written on paper so thin it barely held the words together. But more than time zones and miles separated us. I was on an adventure and they were back where I’d left them.

When I headed off to college, I left small-town Oregon with barely a backward glance in my 1980 Chevy Chevette’s rear-view mirror. And I had just kept going, looking instead toward all the things I knew must be out there, since they certainly weren’t back home. I had come from a life of powdered cheese in a green can and house-brand semi-sweet baking chips and what I wanted was a block of real Parmesan and Guittard chocolates. Getting at least a taste of that life was what mattered most to me. Even this trip to the United Kingdom had been preceded by simply a phone call to my mother, “Mom, I’ve been accepted to study abroad in England and if I can figure out the money thing, I’m going.” I hadn’t even considered how my absence would impact them.

As much as I loved my family, I wanted more. I knew there was a world out there far removed from what a life with an Oregon logger would offer me — I’d been reading about it for years in the books and travel magazines that the county bookmobile brought me every few weeks. Over the years, I had developed a taste for the exotic that the comforting food of home couldn’t satiate.

Before Christmas, I had heard my mother’s voice exactly three times since finding out firsthand if Pan Am really was “flying better than ever” back in August of 1989. Once when I let them know I had safely arrived in Carmarthen and again when they called to sing me a “Happy 21st Birthday!” And then, not quite two weeks before, as I headed off on my Christmas holiday, I had gathered a pile of coins on the shelf of a red phone booth. Starting with several pound coins, I fed the phone and dialed home. After just a few pleasantries, the phone demanded more coins. The conversation quickly became a series of jangling clinks and pauses. Finally, I loaded the last of my coins and shouted rapid-fire, “I love you all so much. I’ll call again as soon as I can!” My family was shouting back “Love you!” when the dial tone cut them off.

Christmas morning arrived with clear blue skies and much yelling and laughing between Tan and her family. As we gathered in the living room, Tan donned her best Santa Claus techniques and doled out the loot beneath the tree. I was embarrassed to see her family had wrapped some small items for me. Her mom just smiled as I became more and more flustered that I hadn’t given them all individual gifts. “Oh, it’s all right, dear. Everyone should have a little something to open on Christmas morning.”

Later, after polishing off the Yorkshire pudding and marzipan, Gran gestured to me. “Would ya like to phone yer mum? I’m sure she’d be happy ta hear from ya. And don’t ye worry about paying fer it neither, it’s Christmas after all.” My unexpected tears made it a bit difficult to see while I dialed the phone, but I managed. I held my breath until my mother’s voice came on the line. Right then, I wanted to hear her voice more than anything I’d ever thought to put on a Christmas wish list.

Standing in the hallway, I glanced at the mirror hanging above the telephone table as I spoke to first one parent, then the other. Reflecting back at me was the same dark hair, the same green eyes. But I seemed different and it wasn’t just the tear streaks on my cheeks as I struggled to hide from my parents just how much I missed them. Then my grandmother’s voice scratched its way into my ear.

“Merry Christmas! How are you dear? Doesn’t seem like Christmas without you making fudge like you always do. Are you having a great time? What kinds of things are you getting to see?” She punctuated her questions with her familiar smoker’s hack and sips of coffee.

“Grandma, it is beautiful here. Oxford is just amazing — I even got to sit in one of the private dining halls. Grandma, there are these dents worn into the benches from people’s behinds sitting in the same places for hundreds of years. There’s just so much history here, it’s amazing.” My voice trailed off as my enthusiasm wore itself out.

“Grandma, I miss you guys. I hope you have a really wonderful Christmas.” My voice cracked before I could add, “Without me.”

“Oh, little missy. I hear those tears. You’re just the same as your mom, acting like you don’t miss one another terribly. You know, that’s what Christmas is all about, appreciating the folks who make this life worth living. Christmas is about the easy and the hard parts of life.”

After I said my goodbyes and rang off, I waited to return to the living room until I scraped my face dry with my sleeve. Hearing my family’s voices had made the day finally feel like Christmas. The kaleidoscope of Christmases in my mind’s eye, how I had celebrated in the past and how I hoped to celebrate in the future, all came together. Christmas finally connected the spectrum of where I came from with where I hoped to end up.

When I sat back down next to Gran, she handed me a small, wrapped package not quite the size of a matchbox, but thicker. Raising my eyebrows, I looked at her. She waved her hand, “Such a little thing, Tan must have missed it under the tree.”

Inside was a single square of bittersweet chocolate. It may not have been a Whitman’s Sampler, but it would do.

Study abroad, major in getting drunk

Your kids are getting wasted on your dime. Forget about the new cultures, unusual experiences and memories and lessons that will last well into a young person’s life. Instead, shots off some hottie’s very tight stomach are far more likely.

Researchers at the University of Washington found that students who study abroad are more likely to increase how much alcohol they drink – more than doubling their intake, on average College kids studying in Europe, Australia and New Zealand are the spots where imbibing increased most.

So, how could this possibly happen? According to the Associated Press, “Students reported drinking more when they perceived their fellow travelers were drinking more heavily, and those who planned to make drinking part of their cultural immersion did so.”

Of course, these programs provide a real opportunity for underage drinkers, which is why this group’s intake grew by 170 percent, compared to the average of 105 percent.

Fortunately, the study abroad experience is not transformative … at least not in this regard. On average, the students doubling their drinking while away from home came back and settled into a routine of three to five drinks a week.

[Via Gawker, photo by Mike Burns via Flickr]