By Kathryn Dura
“No thank you” I replied with a bashful smile, assuming that people on the street were trying to sell me something. While the confused looks clued me in that something was strange, I failed to realize that the strange thing was me until hours later when the pieces came together: Shabbat is the Sabbath and the phrase is simply a friendly greeting.
As the individuals I came across on the streets of Tel Aviv, Israel on that Friday morning likely deduced, I not only did not know any Hebrew – I am also not Jewish. After filtering through the usual questions – you’re American? (Yes.) Are you on birthright? (No.) Are you Jewish? (No.) – there was inevitably some confusion as to why I was in Israel.
I was interning for a nonprofit journalism organization that covered Israeli innovations for a global audience, thanks to a generous scholarship through Penn’s International Internship Program (now the Global Internship Program). For ten weeks, I lived in Tel Aviv and worked in Herzliya, interviewing startup CEOs and writing articles about the “Start-Up Nation” tech scene. This summer internship was my chance to travel abroad during my Penn career and, given my majors in International Relations and Modern Middle Eastern Studies, Israel seemed to be a logical location.
Admittedly, Israel and the nearly synonymous Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not been my focus at Penn. Rather, my interests lie in the intersection of national security and technology. Even still, prior to the internship, my knowledge of Israel was limited to its geopolitical and military technology situation. However, as I discovered, there is much more to a country and its people(s) than its geopolitics.
First, there was the technology. Despite spending the majority of my time reading about and researching public sector military technologies in the United States, I was woefully unprepared to realize the development and extent of innovation in the Israeli private sector. As part of the internship, I was able to travel to various locations in the country to interview CEOs, test out their products, and attend conferences discussing the latest technology. From cyber security and AI to drones and medical advances, I was exposed to the gamut of the private sector and its potential.
Second, there was the culture. However, the term ‘culture’ is somewhat misleading because it assumes that there is one culture as opposed to a variety of subcultures. While I traveled quite a bit throughout the country including Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Golan Heights, and Eilat, I became most familiar with Tel Aviv and its unique vibe. For example, in those three and a half months, I experienced the Tel Aviv Pride Parade where hundreds of thousands gathered for the celebration; numerous protests over issues like refugees and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; a strong military presence given the proximity to a military base and Krav Maga classes; the gorgeous beaches and twice weekly sunset yoga classes. I can go on and on (as anyone unfortunate enough to have asked about my time there has discovered).
However, the images were all taken in Tel Aviv and better illustrate the city’s culture than the disparate descriptions above. The boardwalk and sunflower photos capture the vibrancy of Tel Aviv and its calming, natural beauty. The sunflower shot additionally conveys the metropolis and industrialization. Finally, the bench on Rothschild Boulevard reads “Stop the Moment!” and “Ram & Rita kissed for the first time, here, in this place.” While this example is clearly romanticized in nature, it does accurately convey the common attitudes for both seizing and savoring moments.
None of which could I have gleaned from a book or a classroom.
Kathryn Dura is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania where she studies International Relations and Modern Middle Eastern Studies