I participated in Aardvark in 2016-17 after I completed high school and at the time had no idea what my future held. I knew I wasn’t ready for university and I didn’t want to waste money figuring out what I wanted to do. After talking with a friend for roughly 10 minutes about gap years, I hopped online and ended up finding Aardvark. It seemed like the perfect program for a lost 17 year old about to graduate school and be in the large grown up world!
Summer came and passed and I was finally on that plane to Israel, not knowing what to expect at all. Who were the other people going? Would they smell bad? Would they have an interest in talking to some kid with long hair (at the time) from Colorado? I knew pretty much nothing about what I was getting myself into, but I was ready for the adventure.
Just as quickly as the past summer had flown by, I was already on my way back to the States for winter break, catching myself reflecting on my first semester in Tel Aviv. I had ups, and I sure as heck had some downs (it happens when you live on the other side of the world from your family, but going up from those downs made me a better and stronger person). I looked out of the widow remembering all the tiyulim that we had gone on: getting to experience sleeping in a Bedouin tent for a night while freezing, cuddled around some of my closest friends at the time; or going out on the streets of Tel Aviv as an entire ulpan class to practice asking Israelis how to find certain places in Hebrew (we ended up finding a kid from Chicago instead…); or having to deal with living in the same building as the rest of the program, getting to walk one floor up to chill with friends and then another to see the beautiful rooftop view of all of Tel Aviv. It was a lot to reflect on, but in that moment, I was happy to be on a break headed home to see my family again.
Even faster than the first semester had ended, I found myself schlepping my luggage back through the airport, headed back to Israel for the second semester to live in Jerusalem. I sat on the Monit Sherut (a taxi) wondering to myself how anything can top an 18 year old spending a semester in Tel Aviv, one of the most lively cities in the country, if not in this part of the world. Oh was I wrong… Looking back, I laugh at myself trying to compare Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They are such different cities in every aspect that the only thing they have in common is that they’re both in Israel. Getting to learn about the history behind the city of Jerusalem with Aardvark was one of the more fascinating experiences because there is so much rich history in such a small city.
Adventuring out into the city during free time and tiyulim with the program, I got the chance to see up close the differences between how each culture lives in Jerusalem. It is fascinating to see how Jews, Muslims, and Christians can all live in the same city while practicing different religions and having different ways of life and still, in a sense, get along with one another. The most interesting perspective of Jerusalem for me though, was getting to see the different levels of Judaism practiced throughout each community. In Katamon, the neighborhood I lived in, there was a boys Yeshiva and a girls Seminary, but the day to day life seemed pretty secular to modern orthodox (like what you would maybe see in the States). In contrast to Katamon, there are neighborhoods such as Mea Shearim where everywhere you walk there are men in black hats and suits and women in very conservative, orthodox outfits. It seemed that wherever I went in Jerusalem, there was always something new and exciting to witness and learn about.
Fast forward to today, two years after Aardvark and I still talk with friends from the program and encourage people to take gap years if they don’t really know where they’re at in life. All of the experiences I had while living in Israel for the year 100% shaped the person I am today. Getting to live so far from home was a scary thought at the time, but getting that far away put me in a place that I couldn’t run back to what I knew so well. Aardvark helped me to become more outgoing and I reflect on my experiences from Israel to push myself to be more adventurous and better back at home. My final thought for you about Israel and Aardvark is – do it. Whether you’re graduating high school in the spring or you’re in the middle of university; take a break from real life while you still can and enjoy the amazingness to the country of Israel and the truly fascinating adventures and opportunities a gap year can have for you!