Last spring, as I stood before 100 individuals to present about government and private entities’ responsibility in combating misinformation, I glanced at the sea of placards in front of me: Indonesia, France, Algeria, Venezuela. As high school students, we entered our Model United Nations conference with the same mission: to represent a nation and its values, putting our own beliefs aside, to discuss conflicts that plague our world today.
After hearing others’ viewpoints, we wrote resolutions to pressing global issues. To be surrounded by teenagers, impassioned to create solutions to the world’s problems, was inspiring. I sensed that through this kind of ambition and willingness to compromise, issues from human rights abuses to climate change would fade away.
But shortly after this conference, COVID-19 entered the U.S. As I watched protests break out against lockdown restrictions, the unemployment rate spike and elected leaders fail to contain the virus, the faith in diplomacy and cooperation that I had built up throughout my Model UN experience started to fall apart.
I remember scrolling through social media posts during the first few weeks of quarantine, reading completely different theories as to how the coronavirus started, how it was spread, and how to best “flatten the curve.” I was unable to discern between what was true and what wasn’t. The internet was becoming an overwhelming hub of contradictory statements that were dividing us into groups based upon which theories we believed.
I felt frustrated and confused. It would take an unexpected detour from the high school-college pipeline — a gap year from Harvard in Israel —to help me regain faith in the world.
When universities decided to move instruction online, and my older brother told me to consider taking a gap year, I laughed. I was so mentally prepared to go to college in the fall that this path seemed so foreign to me. Nonetheless, as weeks went by and the thought of online classes daunted me, the idea of a gap year kept resurfacing in my mind.
And eventually, I made one of the scariest decisions of my life: Before I knew it, I boarded a plane to Israel for a gap year program run by Aardvark Israel.
My experience was filled with excitement, even amid the pandemic restrictions. I shopped for groceries in the shuk, explored this wondrously diverse country from the holy streets of Jerusalem to the cosmopolitan neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, interned in software development at a startup, and celebrated Jewish holidays with Israelis.
In addition to this cultural and societal immersion, I was exposed to Israel’s unique political atmosphere. Living in another country reminded me that although nations face common issues, they all have different battles at home. For Israel, one of these battles is the Arab-Israeli conflict.
When Aardvark Israel took me to areas of the West Bank like Hebron, I saw this divide through my own eyes, and it initiated the same feeling of hopelessness that I felt when reflecting on the pandemic. How could we cooperate to solve international crises when people who live together are unable to resolve their own internal conflicts?
Questions circled in my mind until we visited Gush Etzion, where I learned about an organization called Roots, or “Shorashim.” Roots fosters dialogue between people on opposing sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I heard from two representatives, one Palestinian and one Israeli. They explained the importance of using dialogue as a means to promote mutual understanding. And they discussed how they empower future generations by bringing together Israeli and Palestinian children. But it was seeing these two men shake hands after hearing each other’s stories that gave me hope.
Model UN had been the last time I’d seen something like this. I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic as I saw opposing sides empathize with each other and listened to alternative approaches to solving such a contentious issue.
How could we cooperate to solve international crises when people who live together are unable to resolve their own internal conflicts?
After entering March 2021 with my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and watching the distribution of vaccines worldwide, I’m steadily regaining hope. Although our world has been torn down by the pandemic, it has given people an opportunity to both fight against COVID-19 together and to initiate political, economic and social growth.
Back in high school, I ended each Modern UN conference with a feeling of accomplishment. What I’ve come to realize is that this feeling of accomplishment was never about feeling as if I’d solved all the world’s problems; it was about knowing I could bring together people with different opinions and values to collaborate.
I will always remember the thoughtfulness I saw from my peers at Model UN conferences, the bravery and compassion I witnessed from the members of Roots, and the collaboration I noticed as people of different backgrounds and cultures gradually began to work together to fight COVID-19. And, as I enter college this fall, I will keep my mind open, ready to listen and learn from others, remembering that no matter how bad things get in the world, there’s always hope and the ability to work for better.
Abby Miller will be a freshman at Harvard University in fall 2021 after deferring for a year.
Debates over Israel, mental health challenges, anti-Semitism, creating a strong Jewish life — young Jews experience a lot in college. The View From Campus is a column for them to tell The Jewish Week, and you, all about it. Want to write for us? Send a draft or pitch to Lev Gringauz at email@example.com.