My Weekend In The West Bank

For some reason I wrote this a month or two ago and it never got released, and I really could not wait to blog about it, so here it is.

So last weekend my friends Matt and Rocky and I signed up for a program called “Anywhere In Israel,” which places gap-year students in random Israeli households for a Shabbat and really lets them take in every aspect of the country. We had signed up to go to Ma’ale Rechavam, a yishuv (settlement) South of Jerusalem that others had told us was white an experience. We were not completely sure what we were in store for, thinking originally that the settlement was a kibbutz-type setting and that for most of our Shabbat we’d be “roughing it,” with no heat and other amenities that we usually take for granted.

Well, there was definitely no heat, but what we arrived at was not at all what we expected.

Ma’ale Rechavam is one of those “illegally built” settlements about which everyone is always reading in the news. When PA and Israeli peace talks are halted because  of the refusal for a “building freeze,” it refers to people adding a room to their house at the place we were staying. Unbeknownst to my friends and I, we had taken a bus far into the West Bank and were staying on the frontier of Israeli settlement and expansion. This is land that has been fought over for centuries.

Our hosts, Gadi and Sara, have guests every Shabbat through Anywhere In Israel and consequently are well-spoken and gave us an interesting scope on everyday life in a place hyped up so much by the media. They acknowledge that since their house is built against Israeli law, the government can (and has, to others) come on any given day, pull the family out, and demolish their house. One would think that living in fear of having your house demolished would be stressful, but Gadi and Sara are some of the most relaxed, happy people I’ve met. Gadi works at a field school, specializing in heading vast tiyulim (hikes and tours) among other things, and is also the Head of Security for the settlement. Sara is originally from upstate New York and met Gadi on a summer course. Being a native English-speaker and American, Sara gave us lots of insights on life on the yishuv. Although there are several amenities missing from their home (such as table and chairs, we ate on floor cushions and a coffee table), they seem very normal and down-to-earth. It’s good to know that the people living in the settlements are nice, regular people like ourselves, and not crazy hippies or idealists like the media makes them out to be.

After spending the night in a converted freight container, we woke up and ate lunch before Gadi, Sara, and their two-year-old daughter Nachala showed us some of the beautiful natural sights near their home. We hiked up a small mountain (breathtaking view) and also made our way through a valley to see a pond created by the recent flash floods. My friends and I walked ahead on the way back, and on our way ran into the squad of Israeli soldiers assigned to guard duty on the yishuv for the week. They were all girl soldiers (awesomeawesomeawesome) and invited us in later for a drink. After meeting all of them, we got to talking about life in the army, what we thought about the yishuv, and teenage stuff. Being the same ages, we didn’t really run out of things to talk about. Also, they had an American mefakedet (officer) in charge of them who was originally from Boston. After talking a bit, she told us that she was the original creator of “@IDFSpokesperson,” an account all three of us had been following on Twitter and Facebook and use for the latest news on the IDF. It was really interesting talking to someone who had had so much of an impact on Israeli media. Also really interesting talking to a bunch of cute Israeli soldiers.

Aside from that and a chance encounter with two blonde twins in the Central Bus Station (it was a good weekend), there isn’t much else to mention. However, when we returned to rainy Jerusalem and made our way back to Yeshiva, my friends and I agreed that this weekend was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we were super appreciative for and would never forget. Big shoutout to our hosts and everyone in Ma’ale Rechavam for having us and pushing for the sovereignty of the Jewish nation. We respect you guys vastly and are very proud of what you’re doing for all of us.

Until next week.

My Crazy, Random, Awesome End of Pesach Break, pt. 1

So the last week of Pesach (Passover) Break consisted of a few days of nationwide spring vacation and a holiday at the end, followed by 3 days before my Yeshiva started again. As break began to draw to a close, I found myself drawn more and more towards seizing the moment on an impulse and making plans and decisions on the fly. This made for quite an entertaining break. 

It all started after I finished the first holiday (which led into break) that I had spent at NPR Israel correspondent Linda Gradstein’s house. Although all of my parents’ friends were very starstruck that I was staying there, Linda seems like a regular mom trying to manage her four kids and keep the household. She gets lots of help from her husband Cliff, and there was literally nothing about the experience that couldn’t be defined as amazing. Linda told me about some of her crazy journalism experiences (facing down a tank in the middle of a war zone) and how tough it is to be criticized sometimes as a reporter. Her and her family were very hospitable and I had a great time.

After I got back I found out that Gwen was in Mevaseret so we hung out and she showed me how to make a proper vegetarian salad (I don’t approve but she does know her salads). I walked her back to her cousin’s house, where we also chilled for a while. Her aunt is very funny and sarcastic (my favorite kind of people) and I also met Gwen’s cousin Rachael, who’s going to Drexel next year (I might end up there after all of this mess with Maryland). 

On Sunday I went to my friend Danny’s grandparents house in Ashdod, located right by some of the nicest beaches in Israel. I bought a bathing suit (finally), got my tan on, and had a good time playing ball with D and his cousins. They all think it’s really funny how I call him D, by the way (one of my previous posts is about staying by their house in Chashmonaim and all of the antics that happened there). Afterwards Danny’s grandmother served one of the BEST MEALS I have eaten all year, especially since it was kosher for Pesach. It was some legit stuff, seriously, especially since I had been feeding myself in yeshiva. After chilling and going to Maariv (evening prayers) to count the Omer (Still going baby!) I made my way back to Mevaseret, wondering what the next day would hold. 

….which was funny because I didn’t actually get to bed when I got back to Mevaseret. Moshe mentioned to me that he was going to some kind of show to meet his sisters, and offered to bring me along since I had met them before and was pretty tight with them. It ended up that me, him, and our friend Briks chilling with them, and the show turned out to be an impromptu Moshav Band concert! They’re pretty famous in the Jewish world. All in all, it was a good night, and Briks mentioned some sort of music festival at the Carlbach settlement (basically a bunch of hippies) the next day.

Obviously I was down, and Danny didn’t have anything to do either, so the next day we all got together, ate some Matzah (Pesach swag), and tried to set off for the Central bus station to get to the festival. However, for some random reason, the buses had stopped running for four hours, so we tried to get to a different station, which I had heard was called Har Hatzofim (Mt. Scopus), and on the way happened across LAUREN (told you I’d mention you Lauren). Now Lauren had been sadly sitting on a bench by herself because her friends had forgotten about her and left her by herself at the bus station to cry and think about where she is in life (JUST KIDDING LAUREN, but she really was sitting alone because her friends left her). Anyway, being the charming gentleman and good friend that I am, I invited her to come along with us to the other bus. Lauren seemed almost too eager to oblige, and we set off for the connecting bus to Mt. Scopus (Har HaTzofim). 

After arriving, we spent an hour trying to figure out where this bus stop actually was. After everyone ignored my constant encouragement to check out the Israeli Botanical Gardens at Hebrew University (they looked so nice from outside!), we finally just gave up and made our way back to the other station, since it was only an hour until the next bus from there. We stopped for some snacks (since it was Pesach all we could get was potato chips and ice cream) and finally got on the bus towards this so-called festival. Funnily enough, we passed a really big bus station on the way to the settlement, called Har Hotzvim (see any similarity with a different place we went earlier in the day?). I was immediately ridiculed by the others for making such a foolish mistake, but I liked to look at the situation as a fun way to spend the time we had until the next bus, because really the whole point of the day was just to have a good time.

After finally arriving at our destination, we quickly realized this was not the kind of music festival we had expected. A mostly orthodox crowd of families who had come for what was less like a music festival and more like a spring family fun day. We felt a bit strange (having dressed in clothing for an all-day, sweaty event) but still were intrigued by all of the cool/weird hippie stuff they had going on. Overall, though, it was quite a fun experience and I’m so glad Lauren was there because she was really the key to the whole shebang (I mean, really I was, but I feel like I have to throw her a bone here). 

I realize this only covered three days of break, but it’s really late here and I need to get to sleep so I’ll cover the rest in my next post (which I PROMISE will come quicker than this one did).

Flowers inside flowers on Yam le Yam #israel #galil #flowers  (Taken with instagram)

Flowers inside flowers on Yam le Yam #israel #galil #flowers (Taken with instagram)

Ruins on the hike from Mevaseret Zion to Jerusalem #israel  (Taken with instagram)

Ruins on the hike from Mevaseret Zion to Jerusalem #israel (Taken with instagram)

Shabbat at Tehila’s

After getting back from BFL, I posted telling you guys about how the first week of break in yeshiva was pretty boring. Sitting around, watching movies, and reading books (I finished Martin Eden by Jack London, btw, it was great) were beginning to take their toll on my proactivity and I knew that if I didn’t start doing things soon I’d fall into a rut of idleness. Luckily, I had met some older friends through my friend Moshe, and since they live here they were always around to chill. Moshe and I spent a lot of time that week at Tehila’s apartment. Tehila is a super cool, super nice (and single guys, hit her up) girl who is always upbeat and very entertained by my and Moshe’s antics. Her and her circle of friends were so gracious to invite us for Shabbat, which was turned into a bit of a celebration since Moshe’s sister had just made Aaliyah (moved to Israel) that week and it was her first Shabbat as an Israeli citizen. Tehila, Moshe and I spent shabbat with his sisters and a few other friends of theirs. 

The friends were Jill, her brother Andrew, and his wife Mer (Miriam). From what I understand Tehila, Moshe’s sister Gavi, and them have all been very tight for a long time, and as a result they have some of the funniest interactions I’ve seen/heard in a long time. Really, it’s kind of like watching Friends in real life. Andrew has a great sense of humor balanced out by Jill’s dry, biting sarcasm while Gavi and Tehila constantly interject with jokes of their own. Mer and Tehila are like the mothers of the group and keep things from getting too out of hand, that is of course unless someone gets on their nerves. They’re all really nice people (and if Mer reads this she’ll probably be upset that I didn’t say enough about her so to avoid her wrath I’ll add that she’s really nice and also very funny in a more spazzy kinda way). 

Due to the great people around us, spending Shabbat at Tehila’s was really a blast.  I had spent shabbat there once before (a story for another time) and this time, having been acquainted with everyone already, was even funner than the last. I cannot say enough great things about all of them (except I;m not really sure where Jill and I stand) but we’re supposed to go ice skating or something sometime in the next week so I’m really looking forward to chilling with everyone again, even if it’s just Jill and Tehila.

The Second Half of #BFL12 @MASAIsrael

So I’ve been on break for the past few days; Let me rehash what’s happened since then.

To be honest, hasn’t really been too much going on.

My last post was halfway through MASA Building Future Leadership Conference, also known as BFL. After an exciting first few days on BFL, we started entering the individual “tracks” selected by us before the start of the program. I myself had chosen the Entrepreneurship track. After a brief review on how to actually SPELL the word “entrepreneurship,” I decided I was ready to start learning and made my way to the discussion room.

Our teacher for the next two days was an Israeli-born entrepreneur named Gore. Gore was the CEO or founding member in over 3 different successful startup companies, so he clearly knew what he was talking about. Also, he had some serious communicatory power. He kept us engaged and attentive throughout the super-long sessions. Anyway, after giving us a brief introduction into the world of Business and Entrepreneurship, Gore suddenly thrust us into the learning environment by giving us 5 minutes to come up with some sort of business idea. Thinking quickly about how I was going to college next year and how I always like to be in the know in terms of events going on around me, I came up with a multi-platform notification service, kind of like Groupon, that let students on a certain campus instantly know about parties and deals going on in their area. After everyone presented their ideas (or admitted that they couldn’t think of anything), Gore asked if anyone really thought any others’ ideas would actually work. Many people liked different ideas, so Gore then paired them up with those who came up with the ideas and made us partners for the next two days.

My partner was a blonde girl from California named Courtney. Calculating, attentive, smart, and slightly soft-spoken, Courtney perfectly complimented my outgoing, fast-moving style. Together, with Gore’s help, we and all the other groups spent the next two days laying out business plans, estimating costs and profits, and creating timelines for investors to review. Courtney and I worked very hard making sure our business was streamlined and feasible, with me trying out every single strategy and Courtney carefully thinking out my ideas and picking the best possible paths. With a few hours left in the Entrepreneurship track, Gore decided all of us were ready to learn the “perfect pitch.” He lectured us about effective communication (which, like I said before, he utilized nonstop throughout the lessons), proper public speaking, and how to influence investors to pick our idea over others.

Gore gave us 20 minutes to prepare both a 30 second and 3 minute pitch. Working as a team, Courtney and I did our best to create the perfect pitch, and after all of the teams had presented, each team voted on who they thought was the best (excluding their own team). After all of the ballots had been counted, our team was chosen as first! Needless to say, we had worked pretty hard, but the whole time I was exhilarated by both the business and entrepreneurial experience. I owe Courtney, Gore, and my whole group my appreciation and gratitude for allowing me to learn so much in such a short amount of time.

Anyway, I’ll write later on in the week about all of the exciting (being really sarcastic here) things that have been happening since I returned from BFL. Hopefully if I give it the rest of the week something exciting will actually happen.


@MASAIsrael ‘s Building Future Leadership (#BFL12) Conference: The First Half

Jacob Couzens here. It’s been an exciting first half to a week-long seminar that has definitely gone beyond its expectations. Although I wasn’t sure what we’d be doing for a whole week on MASA’s #BFL program, they’ve been keeping us on our toes with a variety of sessions; including group discussion, keynote speakers, and different tracks for individual interests.

Upon arriving I made my way to my room and met three roommates who were all on the Nativ Leadership Program. It turns out they’re also all attending the University of Maryland, just like me, so we immediately bonded over our intentions for next year. After our initial meeting with our discussion groups (Group 4 baby), we made our way into the main hall for an address by President of Israel Shimon Peres. Mr. Peres answered questions, offering important insights into planning and accomplishing goals on the Jewish agenda successfully. His wisdom and advice (although delivered in such a soothing manner that some members of the audience dozed off) were greatly appreciated and I know I’ll make an effort to take his words to heart. His parting words were “Be Jewish, Be Israeli,” a message that I believe was meant to unite us with both our brethren and our country.

After the opening ceremony, MASA whisked us to a gala dinner where we were treated to hors d’oeuvres, fancy drinks (actually they were just slushies), and a multi-course meal. A quick note about the food and facilities on this program. They’re AMAZING. Clean, comfortable rooms with TV, nice bathrooms, and their own thermostat. The dining hall offers salads and soup at every meal along with several delicious choices of entree. MASA really went all out to make us comfortable and I am greatly appreciative. 

Anyway, Tuesday brought with it more new experiences. In the morning we heard from Aharon Horwitz, one of the founders of FutureTense, a company that helps startups that benefit the Jewish community. He outlined the purpose of vision and what we, as leaders, can do to refine and improve it. He also displayed classic examples of important traits that many of our leaders demonstrated in the past. We then attended a workshop, where we discussed how to implement the ideas Aharon related in his presentation. In the afternoon, our groups were taken to Neot Kedumim, a nature reserve and team-building center, where we spent the afternoon learning problem solving and responsibility through teamwork. ONe of the funner activities was archery, where we challenged ourselves by setting goals and expectations of how many points we could get. My friend Matt and I set a moderately high goal, but then (because we’re apparently sick at archery) went above and beyond our expectations by nailing 13 our of 15 bulls eyes! We did the best in the group, props to Matt. 

After another ridiculous dinner (I’m really starting to like this place) we heard from a panel of young Israeli leaders, including Rachel, one of the main players responsible for last summer’s Social Justice tent protests; Boaz, one of the key forces in the returning of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit; Two representatives of the IDF’s IDFSpokesperson unit (it seems I’m meeting a lot of them these days); and another leading female politician who hopes to see the train route between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv finally come into being. They all offered interesting stories on how they came to take the initiative, step up, and accomplish their goals, and motivated me (and I hope everyone else) to strive to do just the same.

Tuesday brought along more interesting discussions with Group 4 until we began long courses in our individual tracks. Always having been interested in Business and creating an organization, I chose the Entrepreneurship track. Our teacher throughout the day was Gore, an israeli entrepreneur who is CEO of three startup corporations and quite an impressive entrepreneur. He guided us through the process of turning an idea into reality, offering tips, criticism, and valuable information. I partnered with Courtney (also on Nativ) and together we built quite an impressive business model for an on-campus promotional company. The group offered constructive criticism on everyone’s ideas, bringing up possible issues and suggesting improvements in each ideas’ infrastructure. Overall it was an exciting few hours and I really cannot wait to see what Gore will teach us tomorrow.

Currently we’re on a short break before being bussed to another dinner (awesome) at MASA’s mega-event entitled “Back To Campus,” which I’m assuming will be centered around bringing what we’ve gathered in Israel back to our respective colleges and acting as leaders and advocates for the country.

More to come on the rest of the program as it happens, feel free to read here on my blog ( or follow me on twitter @j4yCuZZ for constant updates!

YossiBersano wrote…

Dear Jacob,My name is Yossi Bersano and I live in Denver Colorado. I got your Blog address from your dad and I must tell you I enjoy it very much. I grew up in Haifa Israel served in the IDF for 3 years went school ( Art ) in Tel Aviv and worked at the Dan Hotel in Tel aviv. I moved to Denver in 1991 and started to work for Frontier Airlines and opened my own travel agency Now that You know How I got to read your blog I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it and even looking forward to read some more. I grew up in a secular Jewish Home and was not to familiar with the “other” ( Ortodox)Life out there. Your stories triggers my senses , I can smell the food, hear the people feel the sun and mostly the Holy feel you get when you walk the streets of Jerusalem .. Your stories, the way you write brings the characters you meet the friend you hang out with the Rabi and the salesman in the little grocery store to life with your words. The dust of Masada the humidity of Tel Aviv and the wet snow of Mt. Hermon come to life in your blog. I want to wish you luck in whatever your goals are it is just the beginning for you. looking forward to hear more about your adventures in Israel ( I hope it is ok) Yossi Bersano


Thanks so much for your words of appreciation and encouragement. It’s great to know that my blog gets some exposure outside of my family and that the experiences I share bring enjoyment to others. I’m about to start the MASA Building Future Leadership Program tomorrow and will then begin my month-long Passover vacation, so there are plenty more adventures to come.

Thanks again, and please tell all your friends about my blog! One can never have too much publicity.

Jacob Couzens

Just Got Accepted to MASA’s Building Future Leadership Conference!

Another Tuesday, another week full of developments.

Lately I’ve been filling out lots of applications, whether they be for college programs, summer jobs, or other interesting things that I can put on my resume and add to my life experience.

Which brings me to an email I received today from MASA, an Israeli organization that provides support for international students participating in GAP year programs. A few weeks ago, a MASA email appeared in my inbox advertising what they called the “Building Future Leadership Conference,” a seminar over spring break that lets accepted students choose from 5 tracks. Aside from basic core leadership courses encompassing the Jewish international community, some of the special tracks include Entrepreneurship, Networking, and Creating Change From Within. Needless to say, I was more than interested to be doing something productive over break and filled out the application as soon as I could.

Anyway, today I received my acceptance email that gave a few more details about the program. It turns out that I will be able to meet Israeli President Shimon Peres! President Perez, aside from being one of the country’s prominent leaders, is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and former Prime Minister. He has been a member of 12 Israeli cabinets and was a major participant in the creation of the Oslo Accords. I am super super excited to meet such an important person, and to absorb as much knowledge as I can from him. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (although one day hopefully I’ll be enough of a boss to be meeting these kinds of people all the time). 

So, yeah. Break’s gonna be super awesome, and I’ll be doing all kinds of important person stuff. Hooray for me.

My Amazing Birthday Week

Last week was my birthday week. Despite minor setbacks such as the Yeshiva finally cracking down on known laptop offenders such as myself (like a divorced parent, I only get to spend time with it on Tuesday afternoons and every other weekend), it was a good week, including a birthday without disaster, which is a new experience for me.

The festivities started on Monday, when my friend Natan’s mother came to Israel. If you haven’t read one of my previous posts about “Family Dinners,” basically she took us out to a super nice dinner. I remember that morning after meeting her I had mentioned my birthday on Thursday in passing, and also had given a funny anecdote about how it is possibly my least lucky day of the year. Well, Natan’s mom (Naomi) not only heard what I said but took it upon herself to get my birthday out of its former slump. After dinner the waiters came out with a cake and a candle while the whole restaurant sang me “Happy Birthday.” It may sound corny, but it’s one of the nicest things anyone, let alone someone who met me that morning, has every done for me. I am forever in Naomi’s gratitude and would like to thank her again for such a kind gesture. The restaurant gave me Happy Birthday balloons and when I went out with my friends after those balloons got us some free (nonalcoholic of course) drinks and preferential treatment. Naomi is one of the nicest ladies I’ve ever met.

Tuesday was just as amazing. You may have heard about my perfect attendance in the past weeks that were going towards winning a ski pass at the Chermon mountain in Northern Israel. Well, my friends who qualified and I got on a bus at 2 am Monday night to drive up and get our reward. Having gone snowboarding a few times before, I was a bit apprehensive about skiing for the first time, not being sure whether or not I’d be able to pick it up without lessons. It turns out skiing is pretty easy, and after a few minutes of figuring things out I was on the bunny slope. I worked my way up from there until I was going down medium difficulty runs with my friends. Obviously there were some falls but the culmination of my experience was the last run of the day, when we went off the main path into a back-mountain run my friend had “discovered.” It was very challenging considering I had just started skiing that morning, but I had a great time and would like to thank my friends for waiting for me at the bottom. And for not calling ski patrol after I didn’t come down for 10 minutes. Either way, I had a great time and it was totally worth the hard work that went into earning it.

Wednesday I don’t remember really, it was the day before my birthday.

Thursday was a great day. Everyone remembered my birthday (mostly because I’d been telling everyone for a week and wrote it on the main calendar at yeshiva) and that evening about 20 of my friends and I went out to dinner. My one friend Jon bought me dinner which was very nice of him, and other friends gave me thoughtful presents such as Hannukah gelt and Valentine’s Day balloons. We spent the rest of the night on the town where plenty of very funny things happened (one of my roommates narrowly escaped peril). I’d like to again thank everyone who came out and made my birthday one of the best ever. Also, like I said before, I didn’t get suspended or get either of my front teeth knocked out, so all in all the birthday was a great success.

We spent a very spiritual Shabbat at one of my favorite Rebbe’s houses (R’ Steinherz) who inspired us to learn lots of Dvar Torahs (bits of learning about this week’s Torah portion) and almost fed us until we burst. They have a tradition where all the guests have a Jenga tournament to see who gets the best beds for the night, and I ended up beating everyone. By the way, when there are sleeping arrangements on the line Jenga becomes a super nerve-wracking game.

So yeah, I’m pretty sure there was more that happened that week, but those were the main events. Besides that it’s finally warming up in this country that was supposedly hot all the time, and the sun is out more which always lifts my spirits. Today is especially nice outside and things are looking up, despite having lost a lot of time with my laptop (which is also a blessing in disguise, i think, because it will let me get more reading done and the like). From now on, posts will probably be on Tuesdays or the weekends.