May 31, 2012: Almost There!

Officially less than 24 hours away from the start of this amazing journey. Actually, at this point, it’s more like 18 hours; I’m leaving the house tomorrow at around 6:00 AM to make sure that I get to Penn Station in time to catch my train to Washington, DC.

Today has been extremely busy getting everything in order. My final travel itinerary came in this morning from the IIE and I went out shopping this morning for some things to bring along with me on the trip. Samantha and Leah, two of my best friends, came over for pancakes and some Harry Potter this morning to spend some time before I leave. And now I’m standing on the platform getting ready to head into the city for a doctor’s appointment. Which is all great, but I still have yet to pack…

Which means that the second I get home from the city I’ll be packing up a storm and getting ready. I’m still not entirely sure what I need to bring with me; the paperwork all said to bring conservative business clothing, so definitely suits and sport-coats. But I’ll also need some casual wear and even a bathing suit according to our packing list! And then comes the issue of what shoes to bring… I need comfortable shoes for walking around that I can still wear with business attire, and then shoe I can hike around in, and maybe a pair of sandals. Just a lot to think about – and that’s just packing and clothing!

Aside from all that, I’m still working through my prep reading, but I also have lots of travel time for that too. And it’s interesting, so I don’t really mind at all.

That’s all for now. I’ll check in again on the train to DC in the morning with my final pre-adventure thoughts! Wish me luck!

Safe Travels! – Jake


May 30, 2012: An Introduction

It is hard to believe that in less than 48 hours I will be boarding a train for Washington, DC to begin my journey abroad. Today I received all of my travel documents, arrival instructions, overview briefings, and a preliminary orientation agenda from the Institute of International Education (which I’ll refer to as the IIE throughout this blog). The IIE, in conjunction with the Ibrahim Family Foundation, is sponsoring the entire program, and I am eternally grateful to both organizations for this opportunity. I guess I should back up a little first and explain exactly what I’ll be doing during my two week sojourn throughout the Middle East.

This past March (was it really only a little more than 2 months ago?), I received word from the IIE that I had been offered one of the six spots on the 2012 Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project, a study tour throughout the Middle East (originally Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel) for two weeks. According to the IIE’s website,

“The Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project in the Middle East, sponsored by the Ibrahim Family Foundation (IFF) and administered by the Institute of International Education (IIE), provides an opportunity for high-achieving U.S. undergraduate students of diverse backgrounds and faiths to develop their leadership skills and gain first-hand experience with dialogue efforts in the Middle East.

Following an orientation session in Washington, DC, students engage in a two-week study-tour in three Middle Eastern countries where they meet with leaders and organizations representing a range of viewpoints. Students meet with every type of person – both those who have demonstrated exceptional commitment to promoting tolerance and mutual understanding as well as those who represent more thought-provoking viewpoints, which help students understand the nuances of the region.

In addition to IIE program staff, students are accompanied by distinguished academics who act as Faculty Advisors. These Advisors provide formal lectures on issues relating to the region, as well as informal commentary throughout the study-tour which allows students to further explore their intellectual curiosity.

A unique aspect of this program is the emphasis on the post-program Impact Plan. Students are expected to incorporate this experience into their academic and surrounding communities by engaging their peers in activities, projects, and events, which support the foundation of a more peaceful and prosperous shared future.”


With my interest in the Middle East, and some encouragement from friends, family, and faculty alike, I applied for a spot on the program. Everything about the program’s description intrigued me and suited my passions and interests well. (Note: For those who don’t know, “passion” is a favorite word of mine. You’ll probably see it a lot over the next couple of weeks while I travel). After an informational meeting at Penn one evening in January (I think it was January, at least), I was convinced that this was something that I wanted to do. I got my application in order and sent it off to the IIE hoping for the best. At this point, I would be remiss if I did not thank Professor Heather J. Sharkey in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department at the University of Pennsylvania and Rabbi Beth Nichols, Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Israel of New Rochelle for their support, encouragement, and recommendations throughout this entire process. Both of these amazing women are important mentors to me and my passion for learning (especially about the Middle East) can be owed in part to both of them.

A lot of people have asked me whether or not the program is through school, and the answer is: yes and no. The Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project is not specific to Penn or any other university for that matter. As I said before, the program is sponsored by the Ibrahim Family Foundation and administered by the IIE (hence the “no” answer to the previous question). However, the participants in the program come from only two schools: Penn and Johns Hopkins (hence the “yes” answer). My year, I’ll be traveling with one other student from Penn (who, funny enough, is a friend of mine from my Hebrew class this past year and neither of us mentioned to the other that we were applying or were accepted) and four students from Hopkins. We represent a variety of different religious and ethnic backgrounds, and I’m sure a cross-section of different political, cultural, and economic viewpoints as well. I am incredibly excited to meet the other five (well, four not including the other Penn student who I already know) students traveling with me and engaging in some important and interesting discussions.

And on the topic of discussion, we’ll be traveling with Mark Rosenblum, an “award-winning historian at Queens College of the City University of New York where he is director of the Center for Jewish Studies and the Center for Ethnic and Racial Tolerance, as well as the Michael Harrington Center for Democratic Values and Social Change. An expert on the Middle East, he has combined academic research and policy analysis with direct involvement in Mid East conflict resolution since the 1980s.” I’ve only had one conversation with Professor Rosenblum so far, but our chat on the phone left me extremely excited to get to know him better as a teacher and mentor and eager to continue our discussions with the other students while in DC and the Middle East. Funny story about Professor Rosenblum: earlier in the day that I spoke with him on the phone, I was reading the New York Times on my train ride to work in Manhattan. Sure enough, right in the front section of the Times, was an article on the political unrest in Jenin, West Bank, and guess who was the first person quoted in the article? Professor Mark Rosenblum. I nearly choked out of excitement when I saw; clearly I was traveling with the right guy.

My itinerary has shifted slightly since the original plan for the program came out. Instead of Saudi Arabia, we are now traveling to Oman, a Persian Gulf State that not many people of heard of but that I could not be more excited about. In the Fall 2011 semester, in my “Middle East Through Many Lenses” seminar with Professor Heather J. Sharkey, we read a wonderful book on Oman entitled In the Time of Oil by Mandana Limbert. I’m looking forward to seeing the stories in the book come alive in the streets of Muscat, Oman in only a few short days.

Well, that’s all I have for now. In the short amount of time I have left at home, I still have lots to do (like finish all my pre-trip prep reading that is currently calling my name)…

Safe Travels! – Jake