gap year in israel

Check out our social media to see what our students have been up to this past week!

Day 1

The group arrived in Germany this morning safe and sound after an uneventful flight. After heading through passport control they made their way to the Tourist Information desk where they picked up unlimited ride transportation tickets – exploring the city like a local will be a part of the experience! Traveling on the subway to the hostel, along with our students were a group of about 15 four year olds, who seemed cute and adorable, until we arrived at our stop. Half the Aardvark students got stuck behind the kids… And couldn’t get past them to get off the subway. Josh tried to hold open the doors, but they simply slammed shut. Fortunately, our Aardvarkians have had plenty of practice navigating public transportation this year so they got off at the next station and headed back on the next train to rejoin the group.

The hostel the group is staying at is very nice and homey. In fact, everyone there refers to it as “The House.” It is filled with young travelers from all over the world and the atmosphere in the lobby and dining room is full of energy. Hostels are very popular throughout Europe (and Israel) and the students are getting a great taste of the “hosteling” culture through their accommodations. I’m sure they’ll come back to Israel next week with a long list of countries from which they met people and hung out.

After lunch, the group headed out to begin touring. Their first stop was the Jewish Museum. Perhaps the best way to describe the museum is “Jew 101.” The exhibits cover an extremely broad range of topics within Judaism, Jewish history and culture, and nearly all the visitors of the museum were young German groups who were there to essentially learn “what is a Jew.” To some of our students, it felt like we were being described to them as nearly extinct, like the dinosaurs. The experience was overwhelming in some ways – there is so much content in the museum. Everything from the basics, like what is a kippah, to an exhibit about Levi Strauss who was a German Jew. The students enjoyed seeing the displayed replica of the first pair of jeans. The architecture of the museum is simply incredible and perhaps he highlight of the experience of exploring the site was the “Hall of Void.” This space was designed to give visitors time to reflect and fill the space. There was a lot of empty space in this huge area of the museum and it was vast and powerful.

Next they walked over to Checkpoint Charlie, the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War. The students found it neat to see this historical site and imagine that in that same spot, Soviet and American tanks briefly faced each other. As the group walked from site to site, Tali seemed constantly taken by the newness of the architecture all around the city. She’s been captivated and already have lots of photos (which we know she’ll share when they’re back!)

Anyone know what a Trabi is? Well, the students didn’t but they got the chance to learn today as they explored the Trabi Museum. The trabant, also known as a trabi, was a was a series of cars built in East Berlin. When the first cars were released, people saw them as being innovative as they were not made with steel or iron (since the German Democratic Republic did not want to import these materials for the cars) so instead they were made of Duroplast, a special kind of plastic (which didn’t make them so safe in the case of a crash.) After the Berlin Wall was opened, trabi sales steeply declined and the car became regarded with derisive affection as a symbol of the extinct former East Germany. Today, the car has a kind of folk status in Germany.

The group ended the afternoon at the Topography of Terror museum. It was a very heavy experience for the students and the fact that everyone is exhausted from their flight made it even more of a challenge to wrap their minds around the content of this site. It focuses on the time leading up to WWII and informs visitors about the key players in German government at that time as well as the laws which were established that discriminated against the Jews. In the evening the students headed out to a classic German pub for dinner.

They are enjoying sampling the local cuisine and they were impressed with their meals. The restaurant is rate 4.5 stars (out of five) and they all agreed that it’s well deserved.The students will learn this week that Berlin is a huge city, but even so, it’s a small world apparently – as they explored today, Gil ran into a friend of his who is traveling throughout Europe after having completed his Israeli army service. Tomorrow the group will also have a chance to meet another friend of Aardvark’s… But more on that tomorrow.

Day 2

In a travel guide about Germany it says that following the “implosion of Germany’s history” Berlin became a city which is constantly “embracing change and pushing forward.” What the students saw and did today illustrated that completely. The morning began with a tour of former concentration camp Sachsenhausen. Just an hour’s travel from the center of Berlin, this camp was established in 1936 and operated through May 1945. In addition to serving as a detention camp and later extermination camp, it also became a training center for SS officers. Only 15-20% of the prisoners of Sachsenhausen were Jewish with the others detained there including criminals, Communists, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and gypsies.

The group was guided through the site together with a group of 17-18 year old non-Jewish students from a small town in Finland. It was fascinating for the teens to interact, share their reflections and thoughts, and learn together. Also, as they explored Sachsenhausen, they realized that although there were many visitors there, no one seemed to have any knowledge that today was Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day.) When our group reached a memorial site within the camp, they held a Yom HaShoah Memorial Ceremony, together with the Finnish students’ participation.

Together, they lit six memorial candles and read a number of poems and texts written by German Jews. The most special part of the ceremony however was the family history Daniel Finnie shared.

He told of his great grandfather who had been detained at Sachsenhausen during WWII. Somehow, his great grandmother managed to get a permit to secure his release and in 1939, they boarded the MS St. Louis and set out to Cuba along with over 900 other Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. However, when they arrived, their landing permits were revoked and the ship’s passengers were ultimately denied entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada, and had to turn back to Europe. Historians have estimated that, after the ship’s return to Europe, approximately a quarter of the ship’s passengers died in concentration camps. After an intense morning, the students had a chance to decompress when they returned to Berlin with a visit to Postdamer Platz.

This is a major center of commerce in the city with offices, a mall, restaurants, and even a lego world. The architecture of the place is very modern and beautiful. The students had a chance to eat lunch, explore the area, and enjoy the cool, but not raining, weather.
In the afternoon, the group headed to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

As you’ll see in the photos I’ve attached, this site is a massive area filled with stone blocks. They start our shallow and low and as you move through the space they get taller and deeper. Although it is a memorial site, it is not uncommon to see people sitting on the blocks, children play between them, and although the architectural effect is intense, the atmosphere is less so. However, the memorial also includes a museum downstairs which had a completely different tone to it. As you walk through, you can hear the reading of names of victims and excerpted stories of people’s lives who perished.

This coupled with the visuals created the effect you would expect of a Holocaust Memorial.The memorial is located next to a huge park in the middle of the city and at the entrance to the park is Brandenburg Gate. As the group walked through this massive stone arch, they learned about its history and the significance. Today, it considered a symbol of the tumultuous history of Europe and Germany, but also of European unity and peace.

Next up was a little break at Starbucks with a special guest. Kari Semel is an alumni of Aardvark Israel 2011-12 and is currently in the midst of a study abroad experience in Berlin. It was a really nice opportunity for the students to hear about what it’s like to live in Germany, particularly as a young Jew, and to hear Kari reflect on her Aardvark experience.

Following their coffee break the group set off into the park to visit the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism. But, google got it wrong, and the directions instead lead them to the Soviet War Memorial. This is also a massive, impressive memorial and the students enjoyed the opportunity to climb on the tank!

Finally they visited the Victory Tower in the center of the park, a major Berlin landmark.

For dinner tonight, they visited an extremely popular restaurant called Burger Meister. They loved the food and really enjoyed the authentic atmosphere. And, finally, they continued to get an appreciation of local German culture with their evening visit to a club called Madame Claude. Built in a former brothel, the venue is built as an upside down apartment (with furniture on the ceiling) and live music every night.
That’s all for today… Auf wiedersehen!

Day 3

Another great day in Germany and it’s not over yet! This morning, the group headed out early and started the day with a tour of the Reichstag.

This building which houses the German Parliament is a fusion of the old and the new. There is a distinct blend of 19th and 20th century architecture and was redesigned to accommodate politicians and the public. The highlight of the tour is the ascension to the dome and terrace which allows for a 360 degree view of the city.

The students loved the experience – visitors walk up a spiral ramp and then down another spiral ramp so you are always looking out on the view of the city. In the center of the dome is a mirrored fixture which creates a cool effect as well.

Each visitor is given an audio guide which all the students agreed was amazing – interesting and informative. The next stop was the East Side Gallery where they had the chance to walk the length of the Berlin Wall (what remains) and view the murals which were painted on to it by artists from all over the world.

A collection of images representing a huge range of topics, the students really loved seeing all the art and trying to decipher the political messages displayed in many of them. Appropriately, Gil found a mural of DJ equipment (in Tel Aviv he interns at Joy Records).

In addition to our students, there were of course tourists from all over the world visiting the site and the students found it interesting to hear how many languages they were suddenly surrounded by. Moving on, the headed into the trendy Friedrichshain neighborhood and found a wonderful café for lunch. The group really enjoyed hanging out in this cool area and the food wasn’t bad either! The café décor was comfortable and creative, with books around for diners to peruse, and plenty of people watching to be had. It seems that every day of the trip the students are delighted by special guests… Jackie’s sister, who has been studying abroad in Holland, was able to get away from her studies to visit Berlin and see her sister. And, a friend of Ohad’s will be visiting as well.

Berlin is a very big city and the students are doing a lot of walking. Fortunately, the public transportation system is also extensive and easily accessible. They are already moving around the city like locals.
In the afternoon, the group headed out to the Olympic Stadium which was built for the 1936 Games.

At these Games, Hitler planned to show the world that the Aryan people were the dominant race, but Jesse Owens proved him wrong and sealed his place in Olympic history by becoming the most successful athlete of the 1936 Games. Owens also became the first American to win four track and field gold medals at a single Olympics (100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump), a record that stood unbroken for 48 years. On the tour, the students also heard stories of how Hitler used the Olympics and the world’s presence in Germany to further his mission. Although at that time there were already many discriminatory laws against Jews, adjustments were made so as to not reveal to the world what was really happening. For example, Jews were required to hang a sign in their stores identifying them as Jewish owned businesses but these signs were taken down during the Olympics. The tour guide at the stadium was very friendly and turned out to be a really cool guy – he is a former writer for the largest Hip Hop Magazine in Germany and in the midst of studying media. The students really enjoyed talking with him and hearing about his life in Germany. Among the sites on the tour, they visited the track and field, the old swimming stadium, locker rooms, and the VIP room where the Chancellor of the team sits. They found it very interesting to learn about the design of the building which although it has been updated over the years, a careful effort has been made to maintain the original design from the 30’s – so for example, although a roof was added to the stadium, it isn’t visible from outside.

After a bit of a rest at the hostel, the group will head out to a nice dinner for Shabbat and then they are going to a pre-arranged evening activity which will test their wit, creativity, thinking skills, and competitive spirit. Escape Room Games are very popular in Germany and tonight we will find out if our Aardvarkians are up to the test to escape from Berlin.

Day 4

First off, last night’s Team Escape Game was a huge hit! The students had a great time and both teams succeeded in solving the mystery and freed themselves from the locked room. Had they lived in East Berlin before the fall of Communism, we’re sure they would have made it over to the West with no problem…

Moving on to today, the group had a very full day! It started out with a wonderful walking tour of the Jewish Quarter of Berlin with a local Israeli/German guide, Asaf. The guide himself was a really interesting guy and it was a great chance for the students to hear from an “insider” what life is like for the Jewish Community in Germany and particularly for the sizable Israeli community in Berlin. Asaf is studying towards his PhD in “dark tourism,” a field which deals with the darkest times in history, such as the Holocaust.
Through the tour, Asaf really brought the city to life historically. As the group explored the area, they heard about the vibrant Jewish community which existed before Nazism and saw the remains of what is left. Many buildings were destroyed in the WWII bombings of the city, but one that remained is the “New Synagogue” which was built in the mid-1800’s. This enormous shul once held 3000 people at one time.

As they walked, Asaf also pointed out to them “Stolpersteine” or “stumbling blocks” which are brass inscribed plaques installed in the cobblestone streets with memorializing individuals killed in the war. For example, one reads, “Here lived Dr. Erich Blumenthal, born 1883, deported 29.11.1942, murdered in Auschwitz.” If you’d like to learn more about this, click here for an article about the blocks.

Seeing the different ways victims were memorialized was fascinating and there was a distinct difference between the memorials in East and West Berlin. Understanding that very few memorials were erected during the years of communism in East Germany helped shed light on the difference. Perhaps the most fascinating site they visited this morning was the Museum of Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind. The owner of the small factory, Otto Weidt, employed mainly blind and deaf Jews here during World War II. They produced brooms and brushes. Various life stories tell of Otto Weidt’s efforts to protect his Jewish workers from persecution and deportation. When the threat grew ever greater he found places for some of them to hide. One of these was on the premises of what is now the museum.

Moving on, the students discovered the Hackesche Höfe Market (a site which was actually on the schedule for tomorrow.) They were so excited about exploring this place that they decided to take it in today. This markets hosts an amazing Farmer’s Market, but also many cool shops. It’s constructed as a series of interconnected courtyards. The atmosphere was great and they enjoyed the chance to shop.
In the afternoon, the group was given the choice to spend more time at the Market or to visit the Schloss Charlottenburg Palace as scheduled.

Jackie, Tali and Yarden opted for the palace and went on a tour of the palace fit for princesses with their royal escort Josh. They also enjoyed apple cake and hot drinks in the gardens.

The palace and gardens were beautiful and they enjoyed learning a bit about the ruling Prussians. Next stop was the DDR Museum which is an extremely interactive, creative museum which tells the story of East Germany.

Less about history and more about culture and day to day life, the museum gave the students a fascinating view back into the days of communism. They learned about the propaganda and media of the time, and in one exhibit saw a video about housing from 1975 and were surprised that it was in black and white (they didn’t have color tv yet in East Germany even though it was readily available elsewhere.) Levis and their place in society were another exhibit which they enjoyed. As you’ll see in the photos, they also had a chance to add their own graffiti to the “Berlin Wall”

They capped off the afternoon at a thrift shop and Yarden arguably has the best taste in thrift store shopping. The vintage jackets you’ll see in the photo attached are also from the thrift store.

Dinner this evening was at “White Trash Restaurant,” a place which is hard to describe and even harder to forget. The food was excellent the décor was a mash of everything! Finally, they headed out to the theater and saw a show called “Dummy Lab” at the Chamaeleon Theater. The performance was a mix of music, acrobatics, digital effects, and more. And, it was absolutely phenomenal. Everyone was blown away. Here’s a link to a clip from the show:

Day 5

The group started off the day at Mauerpark. It’s a huge park and hanging out there is a huge pastime for locals and tourists. Sundays especially are a popular time for street musicians, vendors, and others to be set up in the park. It seems that on some level, everything goes here. The students saw budding fashion designers selling their creations, t-shirt vendors, and even garage-sale type set ups. There was plenty of street food to be tasted as well. Everyone had a great time chillin’ in the sun and soaking in the local culture!

Rewinding for a minute, I realized I forgot to mention the beer garden the group went to earlier in the trip. It was a really cool experience to see the relationship to beer as it differs from some other places in the world (like a college campus for example…) The atmosphere was really interesting and the décor of the place was also unique. Nathan really enjoyed the overall experience there, and Lauren took advantage of the music playing there to dance.

Back to today… In the afternoon, the group visited the Story of Berlin Museum which brought the last five days together by filling in the blanks which hadn’t yet been covered.

The tour starts out in a bunker. The building itself was built in 1976 during the Cold War and the bunker was set up as a first come first served place of refuge. Moving on from the bunker, the students explored the history of Berlin from the Prussians to the rule of Bismarck, from WWI to WWII, the Cold War and finally today. One interesting thing they learned was about the war which was won by Bismark in the late 1800’s and how this left the Germans feeling unstoppable. However, the defeat in both World Wars left the country extremely wary of war.

Dinner this evening was at a local, “ma and pa” shop, which served Greek food. Everyone had a nice time at this relaxing restaurant and the food was delicious. After dinner it was the time that everyone had been waiting for throughout the meal, who would be chosen Aardvark’s Next Top Tourist?!?! (Yes, Aardvark is basically a reality tv show.) Well, it was a tough decision because all of the students were a pleasure to travel with. Abby, despite shying away from photos throughout the trip, seemed to truly enjoy everything the group saw and did. Gil was pretty much the navigator and map reader the whole trip. And, Ohad was steady and helpful throughout. But, ultimately two women stood out. Leah was fun to be around and she was a great caretaker for the guys keeping them in line. Kira was easy to travel with, kept coming up with funny lines even though she’s often quiet, and she’s becoming a very experienced traveler. So, who won? It was a TIE!!! Leah and Kira are Germany’s Aardvark International Top Travelers!