By: Deborah Coopersmith  | 

Abroad in Four Walls: An Atypical Study Abroad Experience

This semester, Spring 2020, was supposed to be my highly anticipated semester abroad. It was the semester that I was going to spend exploring Israel, researching in Yad Vashem, studying at Hebrew University and developing Jewish leadership values through The Nachshon Project. When I started in January, everything was set up and good to go. I was loving being back in Israel, experiencing and taking in so much of what this country had to offer me, both religiously and culturally.

However, in March, things began to slowly fall apart. At first, it was a called-off basketball game. Then, it was an order from the Israeli government limiting only 50 people in any area, followed by a canceled Purim concert because the artist had been abroad within the past 14 days. The breaking point was on an average Thursday, on my way to the first day of my internship at Yad Vashem, when I was told to not come in because the internship program was shutting down. I could handle all the other cancellations and missed opportunities, but this was too much for me. On the walk back to my apartment, I called my parents with tears rolling down my face and feeling absolutely miserable: for the lost opportunities, all the unknowns and just being unsure as to what my next steps moving forward would be. That Thursday was terrible, but it ended with my mom firmly saying that I could either come home or choose to deal with it and accept my new reality.

So that’s what I did. The next day I woke up with a completely new mindset, determined to stay in Israel and be happy about my situation. This was a conscious decision that I had to make, but it was vital for what was to come. Happiness is a choice, one that I deliberately chose every day following that one. 

At first, I had a vast support system in Israel, but slowly, cohort fellows and friends started trickling back to the U.S. At first, only a few left Israel, but as restrictions tightened, it became half of them, until it was almost everyone I knew. Friends were changing their minds right and left, because of their own fears as well as their parents’ demands. In the end, I had three fellows remaining from a Cohort of 34 and only a handful of friends were still in Israel with me. My apartment of five has dwindled to just two people.

Daily life has been unlike how I would have ever imagined it. I rarely venture outdoors despite the current beautiful weather. Last month, the restrictions in Israel had intensified to such an extent that one was only allowed to walk up to 100 meters from their residence. When I walked to the grocery store, I needed to wear a mask and carry my Student ID to prove to the police officers that might stop me that I was following this law. Currently, one is supposed to remain within 100 meters of their home residence, but the 500-meter rule for exercising has been lifted. This means I can now run outside my parking lot! Many more restrictions should be loosened by the middle of this week as the number of new cases per day continues to drop. Soon, I will be legally allowed to walk to my sister’s apartment which is on the other side of Jerusalem. However, my friends and I decided, for the time being, to remain under lockdown procedures. We are nervous about getting COVID-19 while abroad especially because of the lack of a nearby family support system. 

As I once learned from someone, saying no to one opportunity means that you are saying yes to another. I understand this to mean that there is always a choice taking place; a choice between focusing on what is missing or recognizing what is present. This is far from the semester I had envisioned in January, but I am content with what it has turned into. After the heaviest restrictions were placed, I had a spark of realization, which allowed me to grasp the good in my life.

I am fortunate to be healthy. My professors are working incredibly hard, adapting to new technologies in order to make their online courses interesting and engaging. My friends reach out from all over the world to ask how I am doing, always filling my heart with so much gratitude and love. My Nachshon Fellows, no matter where in the world they currently are, always brighten my day with their thoughtful comments and laughter. My roommate, the mom of the group, is so caring and compassionate, continually ensuring that everyone is taken care of. I have pursued an interest in comedy as seen in my latest Instagram posts. I know that my family will always be there for me and they have proven it to me time and time again, whether by creating a Zoom meeting so we can celebrate a birthday all together, or enabling me to join in on a fitness class by repeating everything the trainer says so I can do it alongside them 6,000 miles away. Because of today’s technology, I am able to speak to my grandparents every night over FaceTime. I now have so much extra time to learn Jewish texts and read the books that I have always pushed off in the past. I have my friends who stayed in the dorms with me whom I can rely on for being there with a smile, some fun, and empathy during the difficult situation that we are all dealing with together. It is not easy during this time, especially being abroad, but knowing that I have such good people in my life whom I can spend an incredible Shabbat with is truly a gift.

During these times, I have learned that it is so important to focus on the good because if not, what else is there? I’ve recognized that being miserable and ungrateful didn’t do me any good, and I now have no interest in repeating that. So, in this less-than-desirable situation, I have an opportunity to choose my destination and I am choosing happiness.

Photo Caption: Deborah’s semester abroad was interrupted by the health crisis. 
Photo Credit: Deborah Coopersmith