gap year in israel

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Day 1

After two flights, a few hours of waiting at passport control and almost missing our flight, we all arrived at Gondar safe and sound. As soon as you arrive in the city, you are struck by what a beautiful place it is.

Sunday was a day that will live in your children’s memories for the rest of their lives. We landed at a tiny airport in Northern Gondar where we met our guide, our driver and Dejene Hodes (a graduate of the Aardvark program who now runs heritage tours to Ethiopia), and started our journey. The culture shock started as soon as we left the airport. Just looking out of the bus’s windows at the mud-huts, tuk-tuks, the way people were dressed, and the amount of people walking in the middle of nowhere was an extremely eye-opening experience. We saw children gathering with water tanks around a well drawing water to take to their homes.

We then visited the Royal Enclosure of Gondar. It was the capital city for 200 years and each Emperor built their own castle within the enclosure. We explored the castles, seeing something different in each one and a huge amount of stunning architecture, there were also Stars of David everywhere we looked in the Royal Castles. All in all, it was a spectacular area.

On the way back from the Royal Enclosure of Gondar to the hotel, we were able to visit an ancient Jewish cemetery where we learnt about the history of the Jewish Ethiopian community and their journeys to Israel. We then sang the Israeli national anthem beside the graves. We also put an Aardvark sign next to one of the graves to pay tribute to the Jewish people.

Finally, we had a short break in our fancy hotel (the Goha Hotel) before beginning a traditional evening, consisting of amazing local food, Gondar dress, music and dancing, more coffee and Tej, a honey wine/beer drink. It was a lot of fun and a few brave souls from our group joined in the dancing. We’re still working on moving our bodies and shoulders the same way as the locals while dancing. It was surreal and beautiful. Afterwards Rachel Hasson said: “I think I may have married one of those men, but it was pretty fun dancing with him.”

Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi is not on my side tonight but hopefully, I’ll be able to send you some pictures from today soon. I have plenty!


Day 2

Today started with a long drive to the Semien National Park. The drive itself was part of the experience. Everyone was excited at the prospect of being able to sleep on the way there, but the journey itself was captivating and nearly everyone stayed awake for the majority of the trip. The views were breathtaking and we were able to see how Ethiopian agriculture operates. We drove through towns, villages and countryside. Much of the time we were slaloming our way through people, donkeys, cows, sheep, goats and all manner of other obstacles and a third of the journey was on a dirt road.

Eventually we arrived at the National Park, one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world and listed by the UNESCO as a world heritage site. The Semien chain of mountains is the steepest and lushest on the continent and it is often compared to the Grand Canyon of Arizona. We had a nature walk along the edge of the cliff (safely!) with a local guide taking in the breath taking views and watching some of the wildlife, including hundreds of butterflies and the baboons. We all started chasing them to try to get close enough for a great picture. Afterwards Manny Weinstein said, “It was fun to unleash my inner monkey.” We spent some time watching the monkeys in their natural habitat, along with many farmyard animals. It was a strange thing to see – monkeys, goats, sheep and horses, but it works for them.

We then started the long journey home. The hike at a high altitude (3250ft above sea level) was quite draining. Although on the way back we did stop off at a tiny Jewish village (Falashas village) where the children were very impressive salespeople, tugging and pulling at our clothing, holding our hands, asking our names and where we’re from, generally just knowing how to open our wallets for them. It was adorable. The children of the village absolutely loved the shenanigans Ian got up to with them.

Our Jewish experience in Gondar was quite interesting. Not only at the Falasha village we visited today, but also due to the Jewish center we saw yesterday. The center includes a synagogue and school that is run by the youth movement Bnei Akiva. The visit was spectacular! The little children were very excited by us as well as the elders. We went inside during a prayer service and the students were also excited and tried to speak to the locals in Hebrew. After the activity, they showed us around and then started the prayers. There were well over 80 people at the minyan, at least half of who were women and many were children. To see people with such devotion to the Torah and daven with such Kavanah was a very uplifting experience. The prayer was partly in Amharic and partly in Hebrew and the walls had different handwritten signs in Hebrew like a Bnei Akiva sign with information about the next gathering. It was a unique experience for all of us.


Day 3

Today we left Gondar and flew to Lalibela. It was the shortest flight any of us had ever taken (25 minutes) and we landed almost as soon as we took off, though that didn’t stop many of us from (Shlomi Efergan) sleeping right through it. We left the airport and were immediately were met by a dramatic landscape, completely different from Gondar. It was a mountainous and desert view that was absolutely stunning. We drove up the mountain to the town of Lalibela and checked into our lovely hotel, which had comfortable rooms with balconies and sweeping views of the valley beneath us. After checking in we immediately left to explore the Ethiopia’s top attraction and it’s very easy to see why it’s the number one.

Civilizations of the past are still alive in the form of strange and beautiful monuments and ruins. The 11th century churches of Lalibela reveal an amazing and skillful architectural knowledge. These incredible churches remain places of worship to this day and no one who visits fails to be stunned and awed by the human achievements that the churches represent. There are 11 churches in total, each one is carved out of a single rock and they are connected with underground tunnels and trenches. We made our way through one of the tunnels known as ‘Hell’ without any light whatsoever. We took a million pictures but I am not sure they do the site justice. It was extremely impressive. There was also a little time to shop and some of the students bought the locals school supplies such as pens and notebooks.

Afterwards Kate Nasan said, “The most moving experience that I had was with a little girl that asked me for a donation. I saw that she was bleeding from her face, and I gave her a band aid and cleaned her wound. She was so happy and must have thanked me 20 times.”

We then headed to a funky restaurant overlooking the gorgeous vast nothingness to watch a stunning sunset where we spent the first part of the evening. The views were incredible. What a unique group! Positive and supportive. Then the stars came out and we were surrounded by darkness, except for thousands of stars. It was a very special moment.

All of the students had something to say afterwards. Here is a small collection of their reactions.

Sarah Pomerantz said, “This is a once in a lifetime experience. Not only that I met Jews in a distant country, but I also met the most adorable children.”

Rose Schimmel said, “I never thought I’d get the opportunity to go to a country like Ethiopia. I’ve really learned to appreciate what I have because of it.”

Lexee gordoun said, “I honestly did not expect anything when coming here and have been overwhelmed by the incredibly friendly communities here, the breathtaking landscapes and activities we have experienced so far.”

Tomorrow we continue to Addis Ababa.


Day 4

We flew into Addis Ababa this morning and began to discover the city. Founded in 1886 by Menelik II, Addis Ababa in Amharic means “New Flower” and it is a giant city full of people everywhere you look. It was the closest we have been to civilization since we arrived here, but still, 90% of the roads are no more than dirt paths.

After we checked into our stylish hotel (Kaleb Hotel) we stepped into our stylish van and headed to lunch at the most western place we had eaten in so far. For some of us this was our first chance to eat non-Ethiopian food in days. Then we went to the National Museum. Now this place was something special. It was filled with bones, jewelry, and other miscellaneous treasures that have been dug up in excavations around the country revealing the rich history of the land. This is even the home of Lucy. Lucy is the nickname given to the oldest upright walking skeleton on earth; about 3.2 million years old. Hundreds of bones have been recovered making up roughly 40% of the total skeleton. We learned that from these bones scientists could discern that she was able to climb and live in trees, but also walk on two feet like human beings do now. According to our guide, Lucy and the rest of her Homo sapiens friends were originally from Ethiopia and with time, they spread across the world. After meeting Lucy our guide said, “Welcome home”, as the theory is that we are all originally from Ethiopia.

Interestingly enough, although Lucy is known as the oldest skeleton capable of waking on two legs, there was actually one other skeleton named Salam in the museum that was 3.3 million years old and believed to have also been able to walk on two legs. Scientists and researchers say that Salam was about 3 years old when he died, and Lucy was roughly 24 years old despite her tiny stature. Considering that the whole museum is the size of a large apartment, it is pretty impressive that both of these skeletons are there.

We finished the day shopping at local markets, and got a taste of how to bargain Ethiopian style. After the market Maya Fox said, “What I like most about this country is that everything is homemade.” Our final activity of the day was watching traditional Ethiopian dancing while eating a traditional Ethiopian meal, we even got a chance to go on stage and show off our skills!


Day 5

We started the day by visiting the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa where we met with the Deputy Ambassador, Tal Ben-Ari Yaalon.

We learned about her journey to Ethiopia and the struggles she faces as a woman in a culture that sees women as less than equal to men. We also were able to learn about the important work that the Embassy does for the remaining Jews in Ethiopia and the work done to strengthen relations between Israel and African countries.

After more sightseeing downtown, we went to our tour guide Dejenes’ father’s house. Currently there are 25 people living in the house, most of whom are patients awaiting surgery from Dr. Rick Hodes, Dejene’s father. We learned about Dejene’s life story including his time with Aardvark. Dr. Hodes adopted Dejene when he was 7 years old and sent him to Dallas to have his spinal cord straightened under Dr. Hodes’ medical insurance. Dejene has four more brothers that were adopted by Dr. Hodes and Dr. Hodes has also given a home to a number of other children that are in need of an operation or medical attention. So naturally, brought many trays of pizza when we went to visit! The experience was the most meaningful that we had on our trip. Not only were we able to hear about the lives of some of these children, but we were able to become friends and play cards and games with them. Afterwards Gabe Strauss said, “There is nothing like a child’s laugh to brighten up your day”. Overall, it was a life-changing journey for us all. Although we are happy to return to our home in Israel, we will never forget Ethiopia.

Take a listen to our favorite Ethiopian song. A true classic by Teddy Afro!

All the best,