In the spring of 2014, Prof. Josh Jacobson was at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv with his family for Passover. As they sat down to the traditional seder dinner, a young waitress approached him and asked if he was Josh Jacobson. Turns out the waitress was Alexa Arena, who had been Jacobson’s student at Northeastern and had sung in the chorus under his direction. The following week Jacobson sat down with Arena to discover how she had ended up living in Tel Aviv. The interview has been edited for style and length.
Josh Jacobson: When did you study with me at Northeastern?
Alexa Arena: I was at Northeastern from September 2008 through May 2013. My major was international affairs and cultural anthropology. I was in the chorus 2008-2009, my freshman year. Then the Nor’easters [the university’s co-ed acappella group] took over my life. I sang in the Nor’easters for three years; that was a time of great change and pushing that group to a whole new level.
JJ: What got you interested in music?
AA: I started singing when I was really young. I was singing in a group of children, I must have been ten years old. The woman who was leading the children went to my mom and said, ‘you know your daughter has a good natural voice; you should put her into voice lessons and help her cultivate this.’ So I started voice lessons and piano lessons in my home town of Peabody when I was 11. And then I stuck with it all through my life.
Choir was a huge part of my high school career. We had a general choir and a select choir that rehearsed every day. John Simmons was the conductor. And we did the MICCA [Massachusetts Instrumental and Choral Conductors Association] competitions—if you won a gold medal you got to sing at Symphony Hall. I think every year that I was in the chorus we got to sing at Symphony Hall.
Each year my high school invites a collegiate a cappella group to perform for the students. When I was a sophomore at Northeastern they invited the Nor’easters and it was such a proud moment for me — I was in this group that was good enough to come back (and we had had some really famous groups with big names). So to be the group that was invited that year — I was very proud.
JJ: How did you choose NU?
AA: It’s funny. I didn’t want to go to Northeastern at first, because a lot of people from the North Shore go there. I said to my mom, `I don’t even want to look at that school; everybody goes there.’ And she’s like, `just come look at it.’ So I visited the campus and I loved it— it was a nice campus within an urban area. And then when I learned about the co-op program, I was like, `that’s good for me!’ When I was 17- years old I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. I actually started off with courses in the music industry, and then in communications. I was all over the charts when I first started. So Northeastern was a really good fit because it was big and it had a lot of options and there was a lot to do — a lot of activities.
I did the Dialogue [of Civilizations summer study program] in Costa Rica, and I’m actually going to be T.A.-ing the Dialogue this summer. So it’s nice coming full circle. I was on it as a student and I’ll be working for them this summer. So I’m kind of still working for Northeastern. I worked as a service learning T.A. I did my first co-op in the center of community service in the service learning office, and T.A.-ed nine classes starting in my sophomore year. It was a really great experience, and that’s how I got the job working in Costa Rica. Northeastern has done me well!
JJ: How did you end up in Tel Aviv?
AA: The position in the Costa Rica program was initially a co-op, but it’s become a popular job for recent graduates because it’s really great experience and it’s living abroad, which is really appealing right after you graduate. My contract was from July to December, and then I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do next. I still had the travel bug in me after Costa Rica, so I applied to go on Taglit [Birthright]. My trip left December 30, 2013 and then I extended my Taglit trip and stayed through most of January because my best friend from high school was living in Tel Aviv. By then I was in a place to be convinced to move to Tel Aviv and I found that people were so encouraging. They said, `Oh you should come back.’ It’s very much the mentality here that you’re Jewish and you should live here and you’ll find a job here—you’ll make it work. I was running on this positive energy of, you know, I can do anything. I’d already dealt with a very challenging and rewarding job in Costa Rica, and why not try being here for a little while. I knew I had this period of time up until July, until the Dialogue, so I stayed after the trip. Then I knew I would have to go home and get stuff. So I said, `OK we’re going to make this work.” My friend found the apartment and helped me get on my feet and things like that. I went home and packed my bags and dealt with what I had to at home. I figured out what I needed for my visa to work here, I came back and jumped right in.
JJ: Where do you work and how did you land the job?
AA: I work at the art gallery at Tel Aviv University. I’m a little biased towards Tel Aviv. I’ve visited other areas, but Tel Aviv is definitely the urban young people’s center of the country. And one of the amazing things I found about Tel Aviv is that there’s such a large immigrant community, such a large “Anglo” community. There’s this forum on Facebook called “Secret Tel Aviv,” and they post a lot of different jobs, and I saw the job at the art gallery. So I contacted the manager. She said, `I’m also a new immigrant in Israel so I understand what you’re going thru and I’ll definitely keep you in mind.’ I was like, `Oh that’s great!’ That kind of mentality and the way people responded like that made me feel like something could work out. And when I actually moved here she contacted me and said, `we have this opening and are you still interested?’ And I said, `yes that would be amazing.’ It’s a testament to the way people treat people who move here and that’s how I knew I could survive here, even though it’s such a different culture and different from anywhere I knew or anywhere I studied about, because my focus had been more on Latin America.
JJ: How did you get this job at the Dan Panorama [hotel]?
AA: Higher education is one area that I’m interested in, but the other is the hospitality industry. Working in Costa Rica I was dealing with planning tours and doing a lot of the programming for my students. So working at a hotel was a really interesting experience because you see a whole other side of this industry.
I saw the job at the Dan Panorama posted on the Nefesh B’Nefesh Facebook site [in both Spanish and English.] I thought, `Spanish and English. Hey, I can do that!’ So I applied. I didn’t have any restaurant experience but they were looking for eager young people who could work over the holiday.
And the first night, the seder, we’re working in the dining room, and we’re standing in a line to greet all the guests. I saw you walk by and come in and I thought to myself, `wow he looks so familiar,’ And I have this image in my head from the email about the celebration for your 40th year at Northeastern last November. So I went up to the manger, who had the list of all the tables, and I said, can you please tell me who’s at table 19? And I saw Joshua Jacobson, and I said, `I knew it!’ So that’s when I walked up to your table and introduced myself.
JJ: What kind of family did you come from Jewishly?
AA: So I actually did not come from a very strong Jewish background. My mom is Jewish and my father is Catholic. So I came from a mixed home. We definitely acknowledged all the holidays from both religions. My mom’s parents were immigrants to the U.S. from Russia; they were escaping religious persecution. Even though she tells you she identifies as Jewish, it wasn’t a big factor in her life and I don’t think she kept up with Jewish traditions while she was growing up. Religion took a back burner in their family. My mom lost her mother when she was really young, and I think that really affected the way she thinks. I’ll ask my mom questions and she always jokes she never remembers what day Christmas is on because she’s Jewish, but beyond that she doesn’t feel super connected to it.
I did a Mayanot Taglit [Birthright] trip [to Israel]. It was a Chabad trip, so we had a rabbi and his wife and they were amazing, they were absolutely fantastic. I was eligible for the trip because my mother’s Jewish, and I would tell people what religions my parents were but I never really fully said I am Catholic or I am Jewish. I never really knew how to deal with that. Now they gave you the opportunity at the end of the trip to renew your bar or bat mitzvah. I actually never was bat mitzvah-ed. But being on that trip I decided to have that ceremony. When I heard of the option I felt like I should, though I couldn’t really articulate why. But they asked you to give a little speech to say why you were doing this, so I talked to the rebbetzin and I said I don’t know what to say. I feel like this is the right thing but I’m having trouble. When I got up there, she was standing next to me and what I said was something like this. `Being on this trip with 40 other young Jewish Americans who feel really strongly that it’s important that we come to Israel and learn about our heritage and our culture made me come to grips with my identity. I was raised with Jewish traditions in terms of the moral aspect. But there was something else. The fact that I am the only living female who can still have children and pass this on. Because it’s passed through the mother’s lineage, I feel it’s really important that I identify as Jewish and that I pass that on.’ That was what really struck me. I have a younger brother and I have no other remaining female relatives of reproductive age. I shouldn’t forego this, especially because of the struggles that Jews have gone through and all the different ways that Jews have really fought to remain a people. That for me was the deciding factor. People tell you that Taglit is an unforgettable10 days, and everyone has their own reasons why. But for me that was really what I took from it. It’s a very powerful thing!
JJ: How did your experience at Northeastern prepare you for this international adventure?
AA: I think that doing a variety of co-ops and gaining professional experiences and the whole mentality and the people you’re surrounded with at Northeastern really prepared me for something like this. I moved to Israel without a job lined up, without much knowledge of what exactly I was going to do. But working as an international student advisor and having to help my students get their visas gave me the knowledge that I needed to go abroad. And it taught me to how to advocate for myself, to find a job, to contact people professionally. I contacted a woman for a job, and she said, `from the way you presented yourself I really wanted to meet you.’ Everything you gain from Northeastern in terms of how to conduct yourself and how to use your knowledge and how to present yourself and advocate for yourself—that absolutely has enabled me to survive here and to thrive here.
Read the rest of the Fall 2015 Haverim Newsletter here.