Tikvat Israel Congregation

A Conservative Synagogue in Rockville, MD

My Unique Study-Abroad Semester in Israel – by Micah Cowan

Micah Cowan fronting a Mount Scopus view of the Jerusalem landscape.

This past spring for me was not the traditional study-abroad experience.

I’m already an “untraditional” college student, enrolled in a joint program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. (Next spring, I hope to receive two bachelor of arts degrees.) I could have undertaken the typical study abroad experience by spending a semester somewhere significantly more foreign such as Thailand or someplace like London where I’d have no language barrier. Instead, I chose to return for the 4th time to Israel, but my experience was anything but a typical study-abroad semester in Jerusalem.

Since January, I’ve been enrolled at the Hebrew University as a participant in the fourth cohort of the Nachshon Project. Funded by the Legacy Heritage Fund, the Nachshon Project is a fellowship for second-semester college juniors who want to explore careers in Jewish life and education in the North American Jewish community. With 41 students from 20 different U.S. and Canadian universities across the Jewish religious spectrum, we grew close as a cohort. We engaged in constant conversations about Jewish issues as we developed our individual Jewish and Israeli identities.

In addition to taking a full course load at Hebrew University, each student participated in a weekly Beit Midrash at Pardes (a co-ed, non-denominational Jewish learning community); monthly Shabbatonim on Israel politics, religious expression, spirituality and cohort unity; and twice-a-week sessions to learn from Jewish professionals, religious leaders and Israeli educators. We also engaged with politicians – notably Rabbi Dov Lipman, a Montgomery County native.

Being in Israel, and particularly in Jerusalem, we constantly felt the politics in the air. We received e-mail warnings from program organizers about steering clear of higher-risk areas and other precautions. I stayed safe throughout the semester and never put myself in any extra danger. Our last Shabbaton in May was supposed to take place in the Golan, just days after missiles were fired from Syria at the Golan Heights. The leaders of our program saw the danger threat, and a logistics team arranged for an alternate location for our Shabbaton in the Galil, located along the eastern coast of the Kinneret.

This semester was truly an opportunity for personal growth. I independently organized separate trips with a couple friends to Amsterdam, Rome, and Cyprus. I have begun to clarify my relationship to the politics of Israel. I have become an even stronger Jewish leader. And I have found myself in a cohort of peers who care about their own Judaism and share their Judaism with others as much as I do.