"This is the benefit of study abroad: To get out of your comfort zone and get shaken up a bit."
Last February, Rebecca Shapiro ‘14 (Minneapolis) took a break from volunteering on a medicinal plant farm near Be’er Milka, Israel, to share this on her travel blog: “After much rain last night, it was finally clear today. I did yoga in the passionfruits. While I was napping in the hammock I heard gunfire nearby on the border with Egypt. I looked up for a bit, then resumed napping.”
Though hers might sound like a treacherous situation, Shapiro came to feel safe and quite at home in Israel. After spending time on the farm—which was coordinated through Worldwide Opportunities for Organic Farmers, or WWOOF—she spent a semester at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. The institute is located on a small communal farm about 50 kilometers from the Red Sea. It aims to help prepare future leaders from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and other countries learn to solve environmental problems. In fact, the institute’s classes put students to work on just those kinds of problems, which are faced daily by the farm itself.
For instance, in the course Basics of Organic Food Production, Shapiro and her colleagues tended their own gardens and discovered the challenges of desert agriculture firsthand. In Water Resources in the Middle East, Shapiro learned that the Arava region’s keenest challenge lies in how to use water efficiently. As she wrote in her blog, by you know you’re living on the Avara Institute farm when “something is wrong with the desalinated water supply so there is no drinking water. And you can’t even feel sorry for yourself because you know too much about global water scarcity.”
Each week Shapiro attended a peace-building seminar, where institute residents brought their diverse views and backgrounds to an honest—and often difficult—discussion of politics, environmental strategies, and more. In one all-day workshop, facilitated by the founders of an Israeli-Arab village, students broke into small groups and tried to agree on a hypothetical solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Shapiro’s group members were Jordanian Muslims, Israeli Jews, American Jews, and one Christian.
“At this point I’m no longer sure what my ideal form of government is,” Shapiro wrote in her blog after the seminar. “How could I say what would be best for the tragically unique case that is Israel?”
Now that she is back in the states, Shapiro wants to push herself to continue to being mindful about Israel-Palestine conflicts. “I see an active role for myself,” she says, “advocating for compassion and greater understanding between individuals and conflicting communities.” As a Classics major, she has her studies of Hebrew and Arabic to keep her aware of the value of language as a peace-building tool.
“There were a lot of challenges,” she says, thinking back on her semester in Israel. “But I think this is the benefit of study abroad: To get out of your comfort zone and get shaken up a bit.”