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Spending time in my favorite place in Israel

I went to Israel this summer, but not on Birthright-and not to the most well-known places in Israel, either.

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Pictured are Kefiada counselors and campers in Kiryat Gat during the last day of the program. The author is pictured on the bottom, far right.

When you ask most college students what they're doing for the summer, odds are they won't say they're going to Israel-let alone going to Israel on a program other than Birthright.

Me? I went to Israel this summer, but not on Birthright-and not to the most well-known places in Israel, either. Rather, I spent five weeks off the beaten track in Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir, JUF's Partnership Together region. I was there working as a counselor for Kefiada, JUF's English-speaking summer camp for Israelis who live in the region.

My relationship with the region goes back more than a decade. I've had pen pals, visited my host family, home-stayed back when I was a Diller Teen (a Jewish teen fellowship program), and now, spent my summer giving back to the region. The area has always occupied a special place in my heart, but this year, spending over a month there deepened my relationship with it.

Spending five weeks there, and living with a family for that long, I felt like an Israeli by the end of the program, like I had really integrated into society. I learned how to take a cab by myself, and properly direct the driver in Hebrew (because he's the one Israeli without Waze), take the bus with friends to Ashkelon, barter in the weekly shuk (open-air market), and enjoy life like Israelis do.

Kiryat Gat provides the real experience of living in Israel-the good, the bad, and the Israeli. While flare-ups in the conflict aren't uncommon, this summer marked a unique turn when Hamas began sending flaming kites into Israel. While most of the region was spared from the fires- and there were no rockets in the region while I was there- I learned about this aspect of Israeli life as well.

I am in awe of Israelis who live life to the fullest, despite the difficult circumstances those Israelis living in the South face on an almost-daily basis. Even when rockets had rained down the day before, we went to the beach, we hung out in the park, we played volleyball, and we watched the World Cup as a moshav in a neighbor's backyard.

The most striking thing for me, as a counselor, was that we had to be prepared for the possibility of rockets. Practicing the rocket drill with my kids was one of the most sobering experiences I've ever had. To them, rocket drills are basically like fire drills here in the States. They know exactly what to do when they hear the siren. You quickly and quietly go to the shelter, sit in a circle with your group, and play games until you hear the all clear. I'm grateful we only had the drill and never had to go through an actual attack.

Despite these challenges, the region is thriving. I heard news that the Bamba factory is moving to Kiryat Gat. Hopefully they'll pump the peanut butter smell from the delicious treat out into the air, sort of like Blommer's Chocolate Factory in Chicago.

People ask me what my favorite part of Israel is. Without hesitation, I always answer Kiryat Gat and the Partnership Together region-I feel most at home there. I want to make aliyah someday, and Kiryat Gat is on the list of cities I would move to. I'm grateful for every second I get to spend in Israel-especially Kiryat Gat-and hope to go back soon.

To learn more about Kefiada, visit .

A Flossmoor native, Melinda Berman is a second year Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences major at UCLA. When not forecasting weather, she can be found at UCLA's Hillel or looking for ways to visit Kiryat Gat.

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