Israeli Gap Year Diary: Independence

— by Ivan Levingston

I began my gap year in Acco, Israel on September 2nd with visions of spending the year growing into a mature and independent adult. Forging meaningful relationships with the youth in Acco, hosting friends at delicious dinners, that was what independence meant to me. Like most ideals, it came crashing to earth almost immediately after I had unpacked my bags.

The first thing my roommates and I did after unpacking was to go grocery shopping. This was the first time that I was spending my money to buy groceries for myself and I was in shock. What should I buy? Well, what were we going to have for dinner? Could we afford enough ground beef to make hamburgers? Not if we needed floor cleaner. Did we really need floor cleaner? Yes. That moment, buying floor cleaner without being told to, was a truly adult experience.

More after the jump.
I’ve had many adult experiences since then, and just like buying floor cleaner, they’ve been about the small things in life. There was the time where I hung up my laundry to dry and it fell off the clothesline and into a pigeon’s nest. The time where I went to an ATM late at night, entered the wrong PIN number too many times, and had my credit card eaten by the machine. In both of those instances the person who had to fix the problem was me. At home, my parents would take care of it, but now I had full responsibility, and it forced me to grow. Being an adult can be lonely but it’s always empowering.

One of my most empowering experiences took place in my very own apartment building in North Acco. My building’s superintendent is a white-haired Morocco native named Alber, and he is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He always says ‘hi’ to my roommates and I, and one day he invited us over to celebrate Tu B’Shvat (the Jewish festival for trees) with him and his wife. We eagerly accepted, and that next weekend we all dressed up and headed over to his apartment. The meal was incredible; Moroccan spicy fish, couscous and meatballs, there was no end. The only thing better than the food was the conversation. At first there was a slight language gap, everyone speaking in broken English and Hebrew, but when Alber mentioned that he spoke French from Morocco, my roommate Ethan started speaking with him in French. I remembered some Spanish from high school and Alber said he spoke that too. From that moment everything took off, and when we left Alber’s apartment two hours later, we were all smiling. As we walked back to our apartment, we reflected on how incredible it was that a bunch of American teenagers could have a delightful dinner with two older Moroccans.

Living as an adult involves a profound adjustment in thought process. At home, if I left dirty dishes in the sink, they would magically disappear, but in Israel they’re still there in the morning! Independence can be a burden, but it also opens the door to so many freedoms and opportunities, the dinner with my neighbor being one example. Growing up is rough sometimes, but there is also a deep satisfaction in knowing my accomplishments are fully my own. And next year, at college, I’ll definitely never take the meal plan for granted.

Ivan Levingston, 19, was born in New York City and grew up in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. After graduating from Barrack Hebrew Academy, he decided to spend this current year volunteering as part of the Ma’ase Olam-Tzofim gap year program in Acco. Ivan is enrolled at Harvard University.

Gap Year in Israel: Acco is like a Bowl of Hummus

— by Ivan Levingston

I love living in Acco. The city is a true crossroads, a blend of ancient and new architecture, Arab and Jewish culture, all situated on the Mediterranean coast. Teaching English and volunteering with kids here during the day and falling asleep in my beach-front apartment with my fellow volunteers every night has so far made for an amazing gap year. We came here as part of Tzofim Ma’ase Olam. The true beauty of Acco is that even though it is an internationally recognized UNESCO World Heritage city, it still remains a humble place full of good people. No place better embodies the ethos of Acco than my favorite spot in the city, the famous Hummus Said (SA-eed) restaurant.

More after the jump.
Although known throughout Israel as the tastiest hummus, Hummus Said has only three items on the menu. Whether you want plain hummus, or hummus with beans (ful), or a chunky chick-pea and tahini mixture (meshousha), or any combination of the three, it will only cost you 15 NIS (about 4 dollars). The unlimited refills of hummus, pita, Turkish coffee and tea all combine to make it a dream come true for hungry teenagers on a volunteer budget. The speedy service and simple d├ęcor are all representative of Acco’s no-frills feel.

For one-time visitors, that might be enough, but as a frequent (too frequent, some might say) patron, what keeps me coming back is the atmosphere. Despite the hundreds of customers that pass through Said every week, I feel important there. The waiters always make sure to hug or high-five me when I come in and ask how I’m doing. They’ll joke about my friend’s recent haircut or how weak our handshakes are, ask how we’ve been, and then guide us to our table. While we wait to order, we might ask Neezar to translate a word into Arabic for us, or ask him how his guitar-playing is going. Wherever I sit in the restaurant, it’s a guarantee that Adham will wait on my table and bring me my usual without even letting me order. After a hearty bowl or two of hummus and some Arabic tea, my friends and I say goodbye and leave, always leaving a trail of baffled Israelis who wonder how these American 19-year-olds are such good friends with the Arab waiters of the famous Hummus Said.

As my friends and I walk back along the beach, pausing to sit on the ancient walls overlooking the sea and let the massive quantities of hummus we have just inhaled settle, I feel so fortunate to be living in this historic and beautiful city that cares about me as much as I care about it.

Ivan Levingston is a 19-year old who was born in New York City and grew up in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. After graduating from Barrack Hebrew Academy, he decided to spend this current year volunteering as part of the Ma’ase Olam-Tzofim gap year program in Acco. Ivan is enrolled at Harvard University.