One of the first things I was told during Orientation was, “Israelis are very blunt people and will not be afraid to talk to strangers and ask questions such as where do you come from and what are you doing in Israel”. That frightened me because speaking to strangers has always been something taboo to me. Since my childhood, my mother has always told me to stay away from strangers trying to strike up conversations with me. My mother, along with the icy-cold individualistic American culture I grew up in, have indoctrinated me to believe in stranger-danger. The belief that strangers are always out to get you and do harm has been hard to get out of my mind. As I sat during Orientation, the idea of conversing with strangers left me with an uneasy feeling.

That was when I remembered what I told myself before my time in the Holy Land began. I was at home packing for this trip and decided that this summer would be about seeking discomfort. I do not consider myself an introvert but I have always been afraid of not following social norms. The thought of being “different” in a packed room scares me. I always think about what others might think about me. I wonder if people are thinking, “Did he come here alone?”, “Does he not have any friends?”, “What a loser!”. Those possibilities rush to my head whenever I consider talking to strangers and leave me unable to do so. Even though I was scared, I decided to muster up some chutzpah and try out what has scared me since I was a child. I put myself in positions to engage in conversations with strangers by exploring the town and sitting down in shops/bars. I thought to myself, “Wow, I have this entire city filled with an endless amount of interesting conversations just waiting to be had”. Just look at how vast only a small fragment of the city is!

In an ironic twist of events, Israelis would not strike up conversations with me whenever I went out. After Orientation, I was expecting people to overwhelm me with questions. Yet after a few nights out, I had talked to zero Israelis. My insecurities quickly got the better of me and I thought that I was not approachable or interesting enough for them. After a while, however, I just reasoned that the locals must be busy talking to the other millions of visitors that are here for the summer. Although I was scared, the prospect of making new friends who experience a different way of life than I do secretly excited me. It’s funny how life works out sometimes. I was jealous of not being able to do the one thing that had scared me for so long.

Instead of just throwing in the towel, I decided to take things into my own hands. I mustered up slightly more chutzpah and engaged strangers myself. I don’t know if they put something in the food or water here but engaging strangers has surprisingly come easy for me. I have learned that there is an art as to how one should engage others. It’s not a perfect science but being polite, having a smile, and not being a creep has so far worked out for me. It truly comes down to having a chill vibe. Penetrating another person’s personal bubble can be a daunting task but if one can correctly read the environment and find an opening, then they’re golden. Having this chill mentality has gotten me into some pretty interesting conversations. I have had lovely conversations with a bartender who likes to solve Rubik cubes while serving customers, a Londoner who flirts with the bartender solving Rubik cubes, and some Venezuelan women at my apartment.

This newfound bravery has really made this experience worthwhile for me. I find myself walking and talking differently. I am more comfortable in my own skin and around people that I do not know. I no longer see rooms filled with strangers but rooms filled with potential new friends. I am truly living my best life out here. Just take a look at this picture and see for yourself how much I am glowing.

When I reflect and look back at who I was before this program and who I am now, I am shocked. This city has truly changed me for the better. We are nearing the halfway point of the program and I cannot wait to see how much more I will change. Learning in the classroom is nice and all but nothing compares to learning about people that have lived a life that one can only experience through their storytelling.