Withington Onwards Travel Award Report (2006 winner) – Marcelle Marks

Marcelle was the winner of our 2006 Travel Award and sent us this interesting report about her time in Israel. Whilst there, she studied in a religious seminary and worked in the community, often as a volunteer in a children's hospital.


Living in Israel, even for a short period of time, is quite an uncanny feeling. You are in the centre of the world, in many ways. Religious people from three of the world's major religions think of the dirt under your feet lovingly every day. Academics and scholars analyse your exact geographical location, trying to work out how it affects behaviours and changes thoughts. Yet you are in that spot, absorbing the atmosphere. And whilst so many other people are thinking about it, you are there.

For ten months I lived in Jerusalem, the heart of the country that is the heart of the world. The Old City – an area you may be more familiar with as Biblical Jerusalem, was my back garden. I was free to roam the tiny streets, visit the holy sites and enjoy the melting pot of four different cultures every day. In short, it was an absolutely incredible existence.

The Old City is a tiny area, further split into four uneven "quarters": Muslim; Christian; Jewish and Armenian. The eight gates to the city all have highly detailed histories of their own, ranging from the almost legendary "Gate of Mercy" through which the Messiah is expected to enter Jerusalem, and the "Zion Gate" which is marked and scarred from the fighting of 1948, to the "Dung Gate" from which all of the city's waste was removed when it was a crowded residential area. Nowadays the Old City is still home to many families, but also contains many educational institutions, holy attractions and tourist sights in each of the four quarters.

My "home" for the duration of my stay was in the Jewish Quarter, and here I ate slept played and, most importantly, learned. The educational Institution to which I belonged is called Midreshet Harova, and for five days a week I had a full day of classes. I had a lot of choice in my studies, but the most common themes were the Hebrew language, Israeli history (from a variety of periods), religious texts, Jewish philosophy, Jewish law and Israeli politics. Throughout the year there were also seminars which devoted concentrated lengths of time to a particular topic that was not given a regular place in the curriculum. These allowed me to explore a range of more contemporary issues such as integration of religious and working life and medical ethics. There were also regular breaks for trips, museums and well earned breaks.

A large feature of my studies was the fact that they were largely in Hebrew. The classes were taught in English with only two fully Hebrew classes per week, but almost all of them involved an element of translation, largely from written texts. I can safely say that although I made many close friends this year, my closest friend of all was my pocket Hebrew-English Dictionary! Although my Hebrew is still by no means fluent, my understanding is relatively good and I can handle most common situations in a shop, on a bus and such like. Possibly one of the most exciting points of my whole year was the absolute high I felt near the end after sitting through a two hour lecture of astronomy in Jewish Law and understanding most of it, with only the technical terms being translated for me. It is an almost euphoric feeling to have come so far, when a short nine months before I had accidentally told someone that I was a piece of cheese instead of telling them that I did not understand what they were saying!

A very important portion of my year, built into my weekly schedule, was spent helping the local community. I was given many opportunities for voluntary work, and throughout the year I went to the children's unit of the Hadassah En Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem, dressed up as a clown and made balloon animals, did magic tricks, and acted in a very silly way to provide the children with a break from their treatment. After all, many doctors have said that laughter is the best medicine. My experiences in the hospital definitely taught me so. With children you can transcend any political boundaries. Race and religion are unimportant. All that matters is that there is a critically ill child who is smiling and laughing because you took time out of your day to sit with them, pull funny faces and make them forget for a blissful few minutes where they are and what is wrong with them. At times medical clowning can be highly distressing, because you are exposed to tiny children who have such heart wrenching diseases, but it is fantastic to see the immediate effect you have on them, on their parents and on the staff, all of whom are delighted to see you. In a hospital it is not only the ill people who need a bit of light relief, but also the family and workers who are upset and emotionally charged as well. The language barrier is not a problem, because mime is the same in all languages. I did learn a handful of Arabic words though, which helped to communicate with some of the children.

I also babysat the children of a family who lived in the old city for two hours a week to allow their mother to clean the house and do other chores which she had no time for because the children occupied so much space and time. We often went to the park or to the shops so we could get away from the house and have some fun and fresh air. I grew quite attached to the children, Ella, Gavriel and Chana and it was very hard to say goodbye to them when I left. One of my friends is going to continue visiting them next year, so I know that they will be in good hands!

I felt that it was very important to see as much of the country as I could. Midreshet Harova ran many trips, some hiking in various places, some to museums and historic sights and some to important cities. I hiked across the lush green hills of the north and the barren desert of the south. With a group of friends I walked the width of the country in three days, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee. I explored Jerusalem by foot, discovering for myself its various neighbourhoods and cultures. On my free weekends I visited many different towns and locations in different areas of the country, staying with family, friends, strangers I had met throughout the year and in youth hostels. I visited the town of Yeted, which some of the former inhabitants of the Gaza Strip had set up as their own community and built a thriving agricultural industry in the middle of the desert from absolutely nothing. I went to Hebron and saw the lines that Jews are not allowed to cross under threat of death. I experienced the Kibbutz life style, and planted trees to keep the country thriving and beautiful. I spent two weekends as a youth group leader running activities for children from a variety of backgrounds. I had so many experiences that I simply cannot list them all here. The experiences are the things that you do every day and that become part of your life, but also the one off events that really make a difference to your life, the ones that make you think and wonder and appreciate everything in your world.

Overall my time in Israel made me into a more complex and more enriched individual. Learning to think and analyse everything is a great skill for academic life and I am sure that it will be very useful to me as I further my studies at university. In addition the experience of a completely different culture really makes you stop and pay close attention to everything around you. Things that you took for granted before become new a treasured possessions that you learn and value each day. You learn to see the good in every type of lifestyle and to grow as a person, understanding that lifestyle choices are just that – choices. Whilst every society dictates a "norm" there are positive things to be found everywhere and it really is possible to learn from everyone. It is so hard to appreciate all of this when you only live one way your whole life. This amazing year has only just whetted my appetite for travel and I am anticipating my next travel experience. I would urge everyone to try and integrate into a different society, not as a tourist but as a real valuable member of their society who gives, and does not just take. The ability to help someone is to me the critical difference between a tourist and a native. I hope that the important lessons that I have learnt this year will stay with me for life.

Marcelle Marks