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Bethami Gold ended up studying at Bar-Ilan University because she wanted to stay in Israel after her post-high school year here in seminary. In a sequence of events that resonates with the experiences of hundreds of her English-speaking peers, she went on to make aliya, meet her husband and now cares for a 10-month-old daughter, thanks to her feeling at home in the English-speaking community of primarily North Americans at Bar-Ilan.
"I went to Midreshet Moriah for my first year," she says. "The summer came and I decided to stay for another year. Then my father said, 'If you want to work in Israel, then you should study there.' It was pretty logical. Why study in the States if I could get started here?"
She met her husband, Ben, shortly before she began her freshman year at Bar-Ilan, which was his senior year. Ben had also begun his tenure in Israel on a typical American "year in Israel" program before deciding to stay for good. He studied at Jerusalem's Yeshivat Hakotel after 11th grade and returned to Israel to join the IDF's Machal program for volunteer Diaspora-born Zionists. When his Machal service ended, he enrolled at Bar-Ilan.
"I had a lot of friends already here, so other decisions have been much harder," he says.
The Golds were married in the US in the spring of 2003, timing the festivities to coincide with Pessah, a time when they knew many of their Bar-Ilan friends would be in the States visiting their families. This allowed about 10 of their fellow students to attend, which "added a link" to the experience, says Ben. Their presence also demonstrated to the couple's parents that "we're settled."
Living in Givat Shmuel, one of the two large neighborhoods surrounding the university, Ben is set to complete his master's degree in Bible studies this spring. On a campus dominated by single people, baby Eden has become extremely popular.
"We take her to shul, and everyone goes wild," says Bethami.
On her first Shabbat, many of the Golds' friends enjoyed a kiddush at their apartment. "We felt very supported," says Bethami, who at the time was still finishing her undergraduate course work. "We had a little rotation of Bar-Ilan students babysitting while I was in class."
Zahava Glanz, the assistant dean for Overseas Students' Programs at Bar-Ilan, estimates that there are more than 200 English speakers in the school's undergraduate- and graduate-level degree programs, with 50 new students matriculating this past fall. Several more English speakers are in the university's preparatory Mechina program for immigrants, in addition to the 75 participating in Bar-Ilan's One Year Program for freshmen from abroad.
"A large portion of the students were here for a year, fell in love with Israel and decided to stay," explains Glanz.
Following their yeshiva, seminary or National Service experience, many students begin to see Bar-Ilan as a viable option. According to Glanz, almost all have officially become Israeli citizens before their second year.
Moreover, Glanz says that 98% of the school's Anglo students complete their studies within three years, and many stay for graduate studies, as has Ben Gold.
According to David Leitner, a student of political science and strategy who moderates the popular BIUshiur Internet community, "Proportionately, we probably have a much larger rate of success in graduating than the Israeli student body at large. This comes down to determination," he says, adding that the North Americans feel that they have something to prove.
"In recent years, we've seen many people taking time off from their studies to do the army so that they'll learn better Hebrew and become integrated into Israeli society," he says. "There's a concern. that because of the nature of being the English-speaking community, people don't go out and look for Israeli friends and Israeli society. But when you take your classes in Hebrew, your classmates are Israeli and speak Hebrew and there's little alternative."
"In most areas where English speakers live, they're very much North American. Here it's small enough that it feels very Israeli. You're much more living in a regular Israeli community. They say that in parts of Jerusalem you can get with not speaking a word of Hebrew. Here it is not like that. Here you have a chance to branch out. There's a support group but you don't have to a part of it, and a lot of people aren't."
Leora Sonnenblick, a senior student in social work who has worked for the Dean of Student's office conducting tours and campus orientations to potential students, explains that the community's effect on hindering absorption is "a complicated and delicate issue." For each student, "it's what you make of it," she says. "People can pull away as they need. Some connect to Israelis right away, while others feel that the English-speaking community is a comfort for them."
"We want it to be easy for them, that they'll do well in their studies and be absorbed into Israel," says Glanz.
Facilitating the English speakers' integration into Bar-Ilan and Israel as a whole is the university's absorption team (Tzevet Klita), which that operates alongside the Dean of Students' office and consists primarily of peer counselors helping students. Through Tzevet Klita, Sonnenblick ran a Meet Next Year's Hevre event in May 2005. She also organized a special English-language freshman orientation that took place after the regular orientation, with considerable help from the students' union. In the fall of 2004, she created an English-language student guidebook as a reference booklet covering everything from how buy a cell phone to how to register for classes.
In addition, "This year a bunch of English speakers got on the Student Union, and they've really enlarged services for English speakers," says Bethami, with a result of more cross-pollination between the Anglos and the student body in general. It's no longer rare to see many of these students attending university-sanctioned union activities such as trips, movie nights and parties - activities once considered "uncool" among the English-speakers.
According to Leitner, Glanz and the Dean's Office go a long way toward nurturing the community's social activities.
"She gives money for snacks for the weekly Torah study session and can push things through with the administration. When we put on a play, she helped to arrange an auditorium venue. She does make the effort."
Bar-Ilan's official channels clearly take an active role in making the university seem as welcoming as possible to the influx of North Americans. Through the Dean's Office, students can arrange for extended test timing and even English translations of exams.
The Education Ministry accepts SAT scores in place of Israel's psychometric exam. According to Sonnenblick, this happens often. "Professors let you write in English, but not in French or Russian. That's because English is the language of academia."
Academically, Bar-Ilan's English-speaking student network helps its own as well, with the community often sharing study notes and exams. Leitner admits that this is prevalent but downplays the questionable moral status of such practices.
"It's not an issue of cheating," he says; "it's an issue of supporting something Israeli students do as well. If anything, the integrity of the group is very high."
The Student Union website even offers many of these files for download. "It's not really competitive," says Sonnenblick, "it's open."
Leitner believes that Bar-Ilan's English speakers are better off with decentralized leadership.
"People have roles," he says, "but we try to keep it so that everyone has the ability to initiate anything they want."
This can mean events, upstart Internet forums and beyond. The students feel "the need for family, the need for support," explains Leitner. "That's basically what we're there for - to try to take a role in each other's lives without being too pushy. What we provide is basically the atmosphere of not being alone. That means meals on Shabbat, birthday parties and sharing in celebrations."
While the social network provides a setting in which the students meet and find a stronger connection, Leitner asserts that "It's not the goal of the English-speaking community to set people up and have them get married. Since this is the core unit of the people you spend your time with, it leads to more marriages. A few people are very specific about not dating in the unit to avoid friction, which can be a threat to the group."
Ben agrees. "There are some people who can go through the entire Bar-Ilan experience dating no one, but I think it's pretty central."
He mentions Keren Hayesod 7, a popular off-campus apartment building in the Ramat Ilan neighborhood.
"All my friends have lived in that building, which is nicknamed 'the co-ed dorm.' It was that way well before I came. Ten couples got married the same year we got married," says Gold, who estimates that the rate has risen since then.
In recent years, the campus slope outside the building where the Anglos convene daily for afternoon prayers has become nicknamed 'Kikar Ha'amerikaim' (American Square), which goes a long way toward illustrating the extent to which this sub-group has infiltrated Bar-Ilan culture.
One of four young women from her seminary class to matriculate at Bar-Ilan, Sonnenblick says that Israelis often ask her friends why they relocated across the world just to attend university. She says that most often, students rebut simply and poignantly: "No, we're here to live - and we're studying."