A Stranger in a Strange Land

Today’s participant blog post comes from Rachel Iroff, a recent alumna of the Yahel Social Change Program. Rachel’s group is lived, learned and volunteered in Lod, Israel for 9 months this year. This post was taken from Rachel’s personal blog, which can be found here.

Everyone tells you about the culture shock while you are packing for Israel. Different language, customs, money, fashion, you name it. You hear about security protocols from the last time people were in Israel, arguing with taxi drivers, and what slang to use. When I arrived in Israel last September, some advice was useful and some not so much. But like any new place, I worked through my culture shock to learn new customs and tried my best to not look so American. (As hard as I tried, I will always look American…oh well) Soon I started using my map less, being able to recognize buildings and streets, and knowing which place is better to buy iced coffee from. By the end, I was comfortable in my surroundings and (mostly) knew what was happening around me. Until I landed in Dulles.

All of a sudden, I knew what everyone was saying. I could quickly read the correctly spelled signs around me. Drinks had ice in them. People were saying “excuse me.” Workers were smiling and asking if I needed help. Everyone was standing in perfectly straight lines and waiting their turns. I was completely overwhelmed.

I was so excited to be back in America that I didn’t think about how used to Israeli craziness I had become. No one really prepares you for reverse culture shock or even warns you that it might happen. Being back “home” made me miss Lod.

I  could finally see how non-Americans see Americans. I understood all the strange questions I was asked about American restaurants, landscapes, malls, attitudes, foods, whatever. I could see the privileges and I could see the failures. I question things that used to be habits. I felt a bit lost in my own country and I wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. I was relieved when a family in front of me started speaking in Hebrew – suddenly I felt oddly comfortable. Like I found a constant in the sea of variables. I was not only able to understand this family, but I could answer one of their questions – in Hebrew- which earned an astonished look from them. Why did I feel more comfortable in the new culture than my home culture?

Last summer I signed up with Yahel Israel Service Learning to help the social change process in a city needing love, not realizing that I needed the city and program as much (or more!) as they needed me. My little Southern American Jewish Woman bubble needed so badly to be popped. My new perspective absolutely still has the Southern American Jewish Woman shtick still going on but fortunately it now has some Israeli, North/West American, Canadian and Australian worldliness to it. I was blessed to have a wonderful, open-minded,  hilarious, humble, thirsty for knowledge, challenging of ideas and excited group of fellow Yahel participants and staff this past year. They not only laughed/groaned at my hilarious jokes, but they voluntarily welcomed and guided me with the most loving and sturdy arms. Moving to a foreign country is hard- really hard- but having a group of other people that know what you’re going through and can help bake banana bread at midnight are invaluable assets along the journey. Throughout the nine months, I have debated opinions, laughed at cultural differences, adopted new slang phrases and made some absolutely incredible lifelong friends. As much as I loved volunteering in the community, some of my favorite times were just sitting around with new friends. We would tell embarrassing childhood stories, debate social issues, tease each other, advise each other on life decisions, struggle through new recipes and wonder if Mike was teaching us actual Australian phrases or just weird Mike words (usually the latter).

One of the most important lessons I have learned though is how to be comfortable with being extremely uncomfortable.  It started the moment I landed in Israel and continued to being surrounded with Hebrew, to running around a train station in Tel Aviv with no cell phone trying to find my group, to confronting people with vastly different life views than myself, to returning back to speaking only English in Tennessee. Being uncomfortable is the worst. Seriously an awful feeling. But it’s when you learn the most. I learned to really listen to what someone is saying so I could struggle to understand the words. I learned that appropriate dress could mean a vast variety of things. I learned that sometimes grumpy dispositions can be changed by a simple gesture of caring. I learned that sometimes trusting someone else to make decisions leads to incredible adventures. Each one of these lessons comes with one heck of a story of me feeling incredibly uncomfortable. Which is a lot better than always being comfortable and saying no to things that make you a tad uneasy.

So what do I do now with all this wonderful insight? Honestly, I’m not sure yet. And however uncomfortable that is, I’m OK with it. If there is anything that being a Yahel participant has taught me, it’s that not knowing the answer is often better than knowing. If you don’t know, you ask the tough questions and fully hear everything and everyone that responds. Those answers will lead to more questions which will start your journey of finding your answer. Your answer is not truth to everyone and it shouldn’t be. It is part of your narrative and that’s part of what makes you important to the world. Your responsibility is then to take your answer and compare to someone else’s answer to find the commonalities and differences, continuing the learning process. My learning process is continuing in the form of graduate school at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work. It is also continuing in the discussions I have with people after they ask the question “So what did you do in Israel?” It makes me uncomfortable to start a potentially awkward conversation, but that’s why I went to Israel. That’s why I purposely popped my bubble. That’s why I’m ok with walking into Target and being completely overwhelmed. Uncomfortable and awkward situations are a part of my life now, and I wouldn’t trade them for all the sweet tea in the South.

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