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California Students Enjoy Israel, but There Are Only Two of Them

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Two California college students spending their junior year abroad are enthusiastic about their experience.

Nothing that unusual, except that the two California State University students chose to enroll at the University of Haifa, at a time when many other American students, and tourists, have been scared off by the continuing unrest and violence in Israel.

Ayelet Arbel loves the beautiful campus setting, the nearby beaches, the unique cultural exposure and the vibrant city life.

Adam Ascherin is most impressed by the outlook of the local people and their ready acceptance of strangers into their extended national family.

But Arbel and Ascherin are not blind to the ongoing violence.

“We have been told to avoid public transportation, not to go to Jerusalem without telling our adviser, and we have agreed to stay away from the West Bank and Arab neighborhoods,” says Ascherin, 26, who arrived from his home campus in Chico, Calif.

Arbel, 20, from the San Jose campus, agreed to the same restrictions.

Their resident adviser is education professor Norma Tarrow of Cal State Long Beach. She was among CSU faculty, who, together with the Jewish Public Affairs Committee, persuaded the administration to reinstate its overseas program in Israel after it was canceled following the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000.

The good news, says Tarrow, is that her two charges have quickly integrated into student life and enjoy mingling with students from Europe, Canada and the East Coast, as well as with local Arab and Druse classmates.

The bad news is that there are only two students from Cal State. Tarrow warns that unless at least 8-10 students enroll in the Israel program for the next fall semester, the Cal State administration, which pays for her salary and heavily subsidizes the program, will probably have to cancel it for budgetary reasons. Tarrow acknowledges that some applicants may have dropped out because they wanted to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv University. The two locations were vetoed by Cal State, which deemed Haifa — though it suffered two deadly attacks in November — the safest major city in Israel.

Nevertheless, Tarrow is disappointed that there was not a single Cal State enrollment from the populous Jewish community in Los Angeles — and little time is left to turn the situation around. “By April, we will have to notify our students whether or not we will have a program in Israel for the coming fall semester,” she says.

Ascherin and Arbel, the two students now in Haifa, come from northern California and from unusual backgrounds.

Ascherin was raised as a Mormon, though “not diligently,” he says. After viewing an exhibit on the 1936 Berlin Olympics, staged by the Nazis, he started reading about the Holocaust.

After working as a personnel manager for Wal-Mart for five years after high school graduation, he enrolled at Chico State, majoring in business administration and in Jewish-Israel studies.

He decided to spend his junior year in Israel to learn more about Judaism and to use the Holocaust archives at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. He shares a dormitory with Israeli students, is close to mastering conversational Hebrew and downplays security concerns.

“After all, there are 6 million people in Israel coping with the situation,” observes Ascherin. “You just got to get over the media hype.”

He is now weighing whether to convert to Judaism. “I am still searching, trying to find an amalgamation,” Ascherin says. “But I am discovering that there is much in Judaism that I have always believed.”

Arbel has had an easier time fitting in than most American students. She was born in Israel and came to California with her parents when she was 8.

She speaks Hebrew fluently, which allows her to take the regular classes with Israeli students in art and art history. She also shares a dorm with five Israeli women.

“It’s a very warm feeling here,” says Arbel. “The whole culture is very open and accepting, and I already feel half an insider.”

Arbel plans to return to San Jose State for her senior year, but the rest of her future is up in the air.

“I may return to Israel for a graduate degree,” she says, “or just decide to live there.”

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