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China 2016

Day One

Dear Parents,gap year program in israel - International China

Nee Hao! 致以诚挚的问候土豚!(Greetings from Aardvark!)

Thanks to the Great FireWall of China, the students and Adi do not have full internet access this week. So in order to share their adventures with you Adi will be sending me photos and updates via WhatsApp and I’ll share them with you by email. Keep in mind, this week you may not hear much from your kids… They’ll be really busy for starters and they will only have internet access in the hotel at the end of each day. In the past we haven’t found a way to access facebook from Beijing, but I did see one student posted to today (and I “borrowed” one of her photos to share with you…)

The trip is off to an amazing start. The group landed safely in Beijing and met their guide, Juliet (ok, her name is actually Chongyan, but she makes it easy for the tourists…) The fight was long and thankfully everyone got some sleep so they were ready to hit the ground running when they landed early this morning. But not before they had a nice breakfast of dim sum!

Visiting Beijing can be overwhelming to some… The city is HUGE! Aside from its impressive size and historic richness, Beijing is home to 20 million people. That is more than three times the population of Israel. Driving into the city, the first stop was a tour of the Hutongs. These very old neighborhoods are built with one level houses, positioned very close together. Most are built in a square shape with a central courtyard shared by all the families. To tour the neighborhood, the group boarded rickshaws and rode through the narrow streets. Although the drivers were great, Adi decided to try out his driving skills and hopped on the bicycle to lead one of the rickshaws through the area. He didn’t say, but I hope he let the driver have a complementary ride!

During the tour in the Hutong area, the students saw local people playing with “Flying Sak” (this is what Adi wrote to me – I think he meant hacky sack… Check out the photos and see what you think.) Ethan showed off his impressive skills and astonished the Chinese!

After getting a feel for the area, the group headed inside one of the homes for a Chinese calligraphy lesson. They learned about the Chinese alphabet and a bit about how to form the letters and write their names. If any of the student complain about having a hard time learning Hebrew this year, just remind them how “easy” Chinese is!

Another highlight of the day was visiting the Drum Tower. This building is very tall and the group had to climb a steep, narrow set of stairs to get to the top where they found 24 drums and had a great time seeing the Drum Ceremony. Every hour on the hour the drummers drum and everyone loved it! The building was built 700 years ago and the purpose of the drums is to let everyone know what the time is. The building also has an exhibition of many ancient and very creative gadgets that are meant to tell the time. For example a boat-shaped incense stand, which is meant to count two hours of sleep during the siestas. You light the incense before you go to sleep, and it burns a string every half an hour. Every string has two bells at its end that fall down and make a noise when the incense gets to it. So every half an hour a bell goes off… You have to be very creative when you don’t have an alarm clock!

After a delicious lunch of Chinese food (although, in China they just call it “food”), they found that they were running ahead of schedule so they headed out to see the Lama Temple. In addition to the seeing many different sized buddhas, they saw a Buddha that made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. This largest wooden Buddha is 26 meters high, and is carved from a single tree! It goes 13 meters deep into the ground and 16 meters above it. It’s an amazing structure that took 3 years to import and 3 years to carve. Apparently they weren’t supposed to take photos of it and so Adi didn’t. But… one student who shall remain nameless apparently did (busted on facebook!) so I took the liberty of borrowing it to share with you.

As the afternoon wore on, they headed back to the hotel to rest a bit and get ready for Shabbat. Tonight, they were going to Chabad which is just a ten minutes walk from the hotel. They’ll have the opportunity to meet with members of the local Jewish community, join them for services and dinner, see the beautiful Jewish Museum, and to speak with the Rabbi who will share stories with them about his experiences in China. In the past he shared with the group a bit about serving as the official Rabbi for the Beijing Olympics, the challenges of establishing Chabad in Beijing the Chinese Communist Party, which is an atheist organization, presently only formally recognizes five religions in China (and surprise! Judaism isn’t one of them!)

Everyone is having a wonderful time despite the cold and the day went very smoothly. Hanna has been in charge of counting the group to make sure no one gets lost, which in a city like Beijing, would really be a challenge, so luckily she is taking her job very seriously! Tomorrow they will have a chance to sleep in a bit and being Shabbat they’ll have a slower day than all the other days of the trip. The time difference between Israel and Beijing is six hours so everyone will surely be exhausted and appreciate the chance to get adjusted and prepared for the amazing adventures that await them!

Shabbat Shalom! I’ll write again tomorrow after Shabbat!


Day Two

gap year program in israel - International ChinaDear Parents,

We hope you are excited to hear about another great day in China! Today your lovely children and I really enjoyed the concept of Shabbat being a day of rest! We were all exhausted from jetlag and really appreciated the good night’s sleep we got after the long day we had yesterday. We started the day in a Chinese way: a Tai Chi session taught by a Chinese master. Just as many Chinese do, we headed outside to do our exercise in the fresh air. The session was great! We also learned a bit about the Chinese wisdom of this martial art: relax and make sure Qi is moving smoothly inside your body. We hope you enjoy our Tai Chi “Mannequin Challenge “video attached!

After the workshop, we went to the Chabad house again. We really enjoyed the delicious Shabbat lunch with the Chabad community and felt very welcomed by there. In addition to the local community, the Chabad house serves a wide community of businessmen and travelers who are in Beijing for visits. Sharing a meal with such a diverse international community was very interesting for all of us.

After lunch we all walked to the 798 Art Zone, a magnificent area full of modern art. The students had an hour and a half to walk around and explore. By the end of their free time, we went into a really cool record shop. We were amazed by it! Many records from all over the world (even the sound track of “The Games of Thrones.”) The manager gave us a tour in his store. He was most proud to show us his picture with none other than Jonny Depp!

Later in the afternoon we all headed back to the hotel for a surprise treat of foot massages! We did a lot of walking today so everyone appreciated having this Chinese health treatment. Speaking of all the walking we did, a special thank you goes out to Molly who was our star navigator today! Thanks to her we never got lost! After Shabbat we headed out to a local Chinese restaurant for dinner and then back to the hotel to prepare for tomorrow.

Wishing you a great week,


Day Three

gap year program in israel - International ChinaDear Parents,

Let’s start out today with a few facts about China… Did you know that more people speak Mandarin, a Chinese Dialect, as their first language than any other language in the world? Maybe you could have guessed that. But, did you know that the mortar used to bind the Great Wall’s stones was made with sticky rice? I’m not joking! It’s true!

The students are learning about these facts and more. They started the day with a visit to Tiananmen Square which is the third largest square in the world! While walking across the square, the site where people used to come to see the emperor in the olden days, the group got a taste of what became a theme for the day: Chinese people asking to take photos with the “Americans” (every non-Asian is considered to be American). It’s hard to comprehend such an idea but the Chinese find non-Asians so interesting as they rarely come across them. At one point, Adi actually had to block three Chinese people from posing with the group so that the tour guide could continue her guiding!

Prior to arriving at Tiananmen Square, we had a history lesson in private. We talked about the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the “Tank Man.” We did this in private because it is illegal for tourist groups to discuss this in the Square. To this day, the Chinese people are not taught about this aspect of their history and due to the censorship and firewall in China on the internet, the average citizen does not have access to the information or know that these events happened. In Tiananmen Square there are both plain-clothes and uniformed officers tasked with eavesdropping on the tourist groups and they will stop anyone who does not follow the law.

At the end of the square above the entrance to the Forbidden City, stands a gigantic painting of Chairman Mao Zedong looking down at the many visitors. When the older generation in China got engaged, it was customary to give a gift of a picture of Mao to the fiancé’s family. The richer the family, the bigger the picture was! Also, in the square is the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Although Mao had wished to be cremated, his body was embalmed and the mausoleum was built in six months following his death in 1976. His final resting place is now a popular attraction and his remains are on display for public viewing. The building was magnificent and his remains were, well, let’s just say that some claim there’s a wax sculpture placed over the actual body (we kinda hope so.)

Now, if we thought the Tiananmen Square was big then the Forbidden City, where the emperor and his generals lived we could only describe as humongous! It has 9,999.5 rooms and is truly remarkable. (Yes, there’s a half room. It is said that only the God of Heaven could be entitled to 10,000 rooms so when Emperor Chengzu built the Forbidden City after declaring himself the son of the God of Heaven, he made sure to build his palace with one half room to respect God.) The group passed through the many gates of the city for about 2 hours and still didn’t see everything. The architecture is amazing and the buildings are the best preserved wooden structures from its time (600 years ago during the Ming Dynasty). Everyone had a great time walking around, listening to our guide and admiring the view!

In the afternoon, the group visited the Silk Factory and the Pearl Market. Ethan showed off his incredible depth of knowledge and helped out with some of the explanations are the silk factory! And at the Pearl Market the group had their first chance to do some shopping and bargaining. The Pearl Market is essentially a huge shopping mall but in the style of a flea market (lots of simply set up shops and lots of bargaining!) Countless “knockoff” products are available – every brand name you can think of is available in knockoff form. The students had a great time wandering through the stalls and getting a better understanding of the realities of the “Made in China” tag we see in so many items.

Now, believe it or not, eating Chinese food in China is amazing but the appeal starts to wear off after a few days so for dinner the group opted for Western fare – Pizza Hut! But don’t worry, this break from Chinese culture was short lived as the evening’s entertainment was an unbelievable Kung Fu Show! The atmosphere and the performance blew everyone away! And, Micha, Ethan and Avigayil were invited onto the stage at three different moments of the show!

In case you are following along with the earlier schedule we sent out, the group will be visiting the Temple of Heaven tomorrow. A few adjustments were made to the schedule based on the flow of the program so far.

Enjoy the photos attached! And stay tuned for another update tomorrow! Everyone is having an amazing time.


Day Four

gap year in israel visitin Temple of Heaven in ChinaDear Parents,

The group had such a great evening tonight that I decided to work backwards as I share the day with you. In the evening, the group went to an acrobatics show which was truly spectacular entertainment! The Chinese are known for their limberness and everyone was amazed at their talent. People flying in the air, through hoops and to unimaginable heights! We held our breath a couple of times during the show when we were sure a serious injury was about to occur on stage, but somehow it didn’t. The show really was awesome!

Another highlight of the day was the meeting we had at the Israeli Embassy. We had the privilege of meeting with Israeli Ambassador Matan Vilnai who has served as Israel’s Ambassador to China for nearly five years. He is concluding his post and returning to Israel in the coming weeks so it was very special that he took the time to meet with the students today. The ambassador discussed the relationship between Israel and China, the lack of anti-Semitism in the country and the projects in which Israel is involved in locally. He explained that the main driving force behind the relationship between Israel and China today is economic and more specifically, technology. The Chinese government looks to cooperation with Israel so Israel may teach the Chinese about technological advancements which they can adopt to ensure the livelihood of the Chinese people. He also suggested that Chinese football will be the best in the world in five years, but we weren’t too sure about that. (As a side note, in addition to having served as an Ambassador, Vilnai served as a prominent and high ranking figure in the Israeli army until 1998 when he headed to the political arena and served as a member of Knesset and a Minister in the government for many years. He also was one of the lead commanders in the raid on Entebbe in 1976, the historic mission to rescue the hostages in Uganda. He reported directly to Yoni Netanyahu who fell in that mission.) It was an honor to the students to meet the Ambassador and we all learned a lot about Israel’s cooperation with China.

Another site we visited today was the Temple of Heaven, where the emperors used to offer their sacrifices to ensure good harvest. We were surprised to find out that the Temple of Heaven is three times the size of the Forbidden City (which if you recall from yesterday is huge.) The temple was stunning! It became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1998.

The day wouldn’t have been complete without another chance to do some shopping so we spent some time at the Silk Market (another flea market shopping mall type of place.) Leeor was an AMAZING bargainer! She got some really great deals! I should mention as well that Ethan showed off his own impressive skills today too as he danced with local Chinese who taught him some Chinese folk dancing.

Overall it was an incredible day. At times a little cold, but Jacob did a great job making sure that everyone bundled up and stayed warm! The hot tea and delicious food helped as well. In fact, we were treated to a feast of Peking Duck for dinner and assorted other vegetarian dishes. We are practicing using chopsticks each day and some of us are even getting the food into our mouths!

More tomorrow!

Day Five

gap year program in china - international programDear Parents,

False advertising? That was the question on everyone’s minds today as they discovered that the Great Wall of China is not exactly just a wall but rather a crazy long, steep, set of stairs (at least major portions of it are stairs.) There literally are thousands of steps along the 13,170.7 miles of wall which crosses 9 provinces and municipalities as it stretches its way across the country. The Great Wall is actually built as a series of sections of wall not a continuous line: there are side walls, circular walls, parallel walls, and sections with no wall at all where high mountains or rivers form a barrier instead. The section our group visited was beautiful but gave everyone a really great workout. As the students started climbing the stairs they were bundled up in their coats, hats, gloves, and scarves and by the top (which most everyone reached!) they had shed their layers having worked up a sweat! The view was outstanding! There was amazing visibility with no dust or pollution and the landscape was breathtaking!

Heading back towards Beijing, the group visited a Cloisonné Factory. Cloisonné is an ancient technique of creating designs on metal vessels with colored-glass paste placed within enclosures made of copper or bronze wires, which have been bent or hammered into the desired pattern. The work is very detailed and exacting requiring a steady hand and more patience than you can imagine. Watching the workers create these beautiful vases and dishes we understood that not everything “made in China” is a cheap knockoff.

Our next stop was the Ming Tombs and the Sacred Road. The tombs are the burial site for 13 emperors of the Ming dynasty. The tombs themselves are buried deep inside the mountains, but as an honor to the Emperors who are laid to rest here, the path to the burial place goes for many miles and is spectacular.

When the group arrived they first went through the “gate of heaven.” Before you go through it, you first need to concentrate on which foot you enter with first, because if you’ll cross with your right foot, you will be a girl in the next life time, but if you cross with your left foot than you are bound to be a boy. (I’ll leave it to you to guess which foot your kids entered with!) When they got to the top they again were treated to an amazing, beautiful mountain landscape.

Next everyone walked down the Sacred Road (the road leading to heaven) which leads to the Ming Tombs. It is said in Chinese tradition that the Emperor, who was known as the Son of the Heaven, came from Heaven to his country through the Sacred Way and also would return to Heaven through this road. The road is lined with 18 animal statues dating from 600 years ago.

Our final stop of the day was the Wangfujing Street Night Market. The street is lined with vendor stalls selling a wide and interesting array of foods… Scorpions on a stick, snake, deep fried crickets, sheep testicles, and more. You get the picture I’m sure. Seeing this market was crazy for the students! Their reactions varied but most of all everyone laughed a lot as some tried assorted delicacies and others were more than satisfied being a spectator.

Finally we were off to eat some food which better suited our tastes. For dinner we ate at a Hot Pot restaurant which is similar to fondue – in the middle of the table is a pot of boiling hot water and each person is brought raw foods to cook themselves in the pot. A variety of sauces are also served. The result is delicious and the experience a lot of fun.

Throughout the week, Ira has been working an creating a documentary of the trip and we’re all really excited to see the resulting film. He’s doing a great job and we’re thrilled that his efforts will create a lasting memory for all of us!

With one day left of our itinerary, we are looking forward to the adventures that await us tomorrow. In addition to the remaining sites, we are all aware that our last shopping opportunity will be before us! I have to say, Tess has been a star when it comes to our shopping experiences this week. She’s been our designated reviewer providing us with her perspective and insight at every turn – from the Silk Market to the convenience stores, she has had great tips and advice!

As you’ll see in the attached video clip, we’re having a great time and even connecting with the locals! 😉

Day Six

china - gap year program internationalDear Parents,

The students are currently somewhere in the air over Asia on their way home to Israel. We will of course let you know once they land safely but in the meantime, let’s recap today’s activities. Overall it was a wonderful trip and they had a full day today!

The first stop was the Summer Palace, which is the beautiful royal gardens built for the Emperors’ families to spend their summer months during the Quing Dynasty. Empress Dowager Tzu-hsi, who is referred to as “the dragon lady” used to stay in this palace. The legend says that even though she’d eat 120 courses in a meal, she was a very beautiful woman and worked hard on her appearance. We aren’t so sure we’d want to eat so much even if given the chance, but to each his own… Another fact we learned about the Dragon Lady was that she locked her emperor son inside the Summer Palace for 10 whole years until he died. This made Julia really sad but she was comforted by the amazing views at the palace so if you have to be locked up somewhere, this wouldn’t be such a bad option. We also walked through the longest corridor in the world which stretches 820 yards. The lake on the grounds of the Summer Palace was also beautiful!

The next place the group visited was a Pearl Factory. They had a great time seeing a demonstration of how the pearls are grown and harvested, as well as a terrific time window shopping throughout the gallery. There were even some students who bought jewelry (we hope as a thank you present to their moms for sending them on the trip!)

Next up was a really cool Tea House. As you know, tea is an important part of Chinese culture. At the tea house, we had a lesson on how to properly brew tea and about the benefits of different kinds of teas. We also sampled different flavors. Everyone really enjoyed the relaxing and aromatic experience, especially Nelly who we think will continue to conduct tea ceremonies back in Israel.

Our final site to visit was the Olympic Park where we had a chance to see the beautiful Aquatics Center, which is fondly described as the Water Cube, and the National Stadium, known as the Birds Nest. The architecture is really cool and the buildings lit up after dark are really a treat to see.

Throughout the day, there was an interesting phenomenon taking place with languages… Sarah surprised us by showing off her Chinese skills, while Jessica spent the day (and the two previous days) speaking Hebrew to every Chinese person she encountered. Jessica really misses her Hebrew Ulpan and especially her teacher Dina.

What an amazing trip it’s been!


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Tel Aviv 6610910
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Jerusalem 9462503

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