The first time I went to Israel I stayed for quite a while. My parents sent me to a Bnei Akiva boarding school for eight months when I was in year 9/10, and to this day it was the most transformative experience of my life.
The Ulpana had few English speakers. Although I had been in the ‘top’ stream for Hebrew, the only sentence I could muster was to haltingly ask where the bathrooms were. It took a month or two to understand conversation, and a few months longer to converse.
Immersion was the best language teacher; forced to swim in the Hebrew ocean without the lifeboat of a translator. The girls were kind and patient, including me in their friendships even though my teeth broke every time I tried to join the banter.
I arrived at the Ulpana a few months after Operation Solomon. An entire floor in the senior building had been dedicated to house the new immigrants. I remember being fascinated by the art on their necks and their fast, animated Amharic as they called their parents from the communal payphones.
Only with hindsight can I fully appreciate the enormity of their journey and that of their families and communities. I wish I had had the maturity, foresight and heart to ask them about their story.
Shabbatot at the Ulpana were magical. Meals were quickly eaten, then the singing would begin. The dining hall would reverberate with the melodic voices of 500 young women, singing about the splendour of Shabbat.
Every second Shabbat was a ‘Shabbat chofshi’ when students would travel home to be with family. As I did not have any relatives in Israel at the time, I depended on classmates to invite me for Shabbat. Their kindness and hospitality meant that I travelled the length and breadth of Israel, spending Shabbatot in the Galil and Golan, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Beersheba and Jerusalem.
I remember one particular Thursday night, it was 9pm and I was yet to be invited. As the girls packed their bags I quietly whimpered into my pillow, envisaging a Shabbat in my dormitory room, eating tinned food all on my lonesome. Now aware of my plight, my roommate immediately invited me to join her for Shabbat. Although her house was filled with dead snakes in jars, I had a lovely time!
The Ulpana did not resile from Israeli politics. There was one evening when, at great expense, the school hired tens of busses to take all students to a ‘hafgana’, a protest for ‘Shalom Im HaGolan’. At the time I wasn’t attuned to what it all meant. I spent most of the protest trying to find Michal, my Melbourne classmate who was boarding at a school in Jerusalem.
While I didn’t manage to locate her among the masses, I vividly recall seeing Nechama, a girl from the Ulpana, howling with grief. A Palestinian terrorist had boarded a bus that was travelling from Shiloh (her hometown) to the protest and had shot and killed six people, including a mother and two of her children. It is my earliest memory of a terrorist attack and I can still see Nechama’s tears for the victims she knew.
I had wanted to stay at the Ulpana and finish my schooling in Israel. My parents enquired about how I could complete bagrut as a ‘lone student’, and the school was willing to do anything and everything for a potential olah. In the end I returned to Melbourne, equipped with Hebrew fluent enough for VCE and an enduring love for our homeland.
I am forever grateful to the girls of Ulpana Kfar Pines for being so incredibly warm and welcoming, and to my parents for having the wisdom to give me this life-changing experience.
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