gap year in israel

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Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael

Day 1

“siamo arrivati in Italia,” yelled Nicholas as they walked off the plane in Rome.. not really BECAUSE they were too busy running all the way across the airport to board their flight to Venice, which thanks to Al Italia which put the two planes on completely opposite sides of the airport, nearly caused them to miss their flight. They were the last 8 people to board the plane that waited for them. Luckily they all slept through both flights and arrived in Venice semi rested.

Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael
They landed in Venice and took a bus into the city and from there walked to the hotel through the beautiful and colorful streets aka a maze, but nonetheless beautiful and romantic. The weather has been good and at times there was some sunshine.

The hotel is amazing, they all love it. The students’ rooms overlook the canals, only Keith’s doesn’t, but it is a nice and cozy boutique hotel.
Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael
Right after putting their bags down they went to eat pizza, obviously in Italy. They claimed it was the best pizza ever, and after getting lost for the 3rd time (Keith has been there 3 times and keeps getting lost when trying to find it), it was worth it because so it has many different kinds of pizza toppings and all really fresh. Then came the gelato ice cream, when in Italy…
Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael
At this point they even managed to do some shopping already. Nicholas got a sweater, Keith got a hat. Other boys got scarves. Arielle got a cute dress.
Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael
After lunch they were good little tourists and waited for their tour guide, who was a no show. Luckily Keith has been there before and was able to play tour guide. They visited the Doges Palace – original home to the supreme authority of Venice for 1200 years. It has a huge open square with a palace. The students got to go into the cathedral where St. Mark’s bones are buried. St. Mark was originally buried in Egypt. Legend has it that during one of his journeys to Venice an angel came to him and told him that he would be buried there. Years later 2 guys went to Egypt and stole his bones to re-bury in Venice.
Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael
Venice infrastructure is built on a bunch of stinky swamps that were manually filled in, essentially you are walking on water. Venice is all canals and walkways. There are no cars and you only get around by walking or by boat, which mean police, ambulance or fire vehicles are actually boats.

Following the tour they went all European and sat at a cafe and drank red wine. They got cheese and bread to go with it.
Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael

Later they watched an documentary about the history of Venice, which they really liked. Followed by a play in English about Venice and masks and the famous people from Venice like Marco Polo, Vivaldi, and Casanova.

At this point they were snoozing from the wine.

Finally, they went to the dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, made sure to get some Americano into their night’s festivities. Even though the food was American, service was definitely Italian aka lousy and lazy.

Then they found their way back to the hotel and passed out!!

‘til tomorrow…Goodnight

Day 2:

After an A-M-AZ-I-N-G breakfast at the hotel, where they sat right on the canal seeing all the boats going by and delivering fresh food and supplies to other restaurants, they packed their bags, dropped them off at a Chabad house and continued to a tour of the Venice Jewish Ghetto.

Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael
During the war, Venice allowed the Jews to come live there. They were housed in small areas that were fenced off with guards and they were only allowed out during the day and had to wear big yellow hates to distinguish that they were Jews. This was considered a generous gesture by the Church. The Venetian Ghetto which is also original Ghetto, was first created in 1516 and later adopted throughout Europe.

The Sephardich Jews arrived at the ghetto after the Ashkenazi and were able to slightly expanded it since they were wealthier. Venice building are normally low but the ghetto building had nearly 8 floors because they couldn’t expand horizontally so hard to do it vertically.

In the ghetto there are 6 synagogues. They visited 2 Asheknazi and 1 Sephardic. All over hundreds of years old with some of the original furniture. The Asheknazi ones are nice looking but the Sephardic are ornate and gorgeous. Since Jews could not work as architects they hired non-Jews who build the synagogues like churches which is why they resemble churches. Today there are nearly 800 Jews in Venice. Very few live in what used to be the ghetto. During the war, there were more than 2000 Jews and only about 1000 survived.

Then they returned to the Chabad house where Keith ran into an old friend from Miami, and even people from Beit Semesh that he knew. The Chabadnikim were really nice and helped the boys lay tfilin. The boys said they did this not for religious purposes but to signify that we are still around and proud.
Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael
Jordy, who never had a bar mitzvah, was given the opportunity to have one by the Chabad people who gave him a Torah portion poured scotch for everyone, toasted a l’chaim and danced around. He was ecstatic.
Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael
After the celebrations they took the train to Florence. They ate lunch on the train where there is a car that you sit in that is like a restaurant.

They got to the hotel, which is in an ancient building but very accommodating. Florence has a very different feeling from Venice. It is considered one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, with renaissance architecture. They walked around the city and then went to the Duomo Cathedral, which is the main church in Florence. It is designed in Gothic style and has one of the largest domes in the world.

From there they went to the Salvatore Ferragamo shoe museum. There was an extensive exhibit of Marilyn Monroe who wore his shoes back in the day. When they were in Berlin the students saw the movie “Some Like it Hot” and they had some of her wardrobe on display at the museum so it was cool for them to see.
Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael
Then they rested a bit and sat a cute little cafe in a private room that was formally a wine cellar and they dined on wine and cheese. Then they continued to walk around the city. Arielle found an H&M and did some shopping (Keith was unhappy, he didn’t find anything he liked).
Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael

Then they kept walking around and ended up at a trendy Italian bistro that is mostly student oriented,called Dante which offers you a main course and all you can drink wine.. but not to worry, Keith put a limit on how much they can drink. They dined on pasta and salmon.

Apparently in Italy, they refuse to serve you tap water, rather force you to purchase bottled water, so the group found themselves always arguing with them. They ended up getting a bottle of water and took turns going to the restroom to refill it. Don’t mess with Americans!!! They also charged them 2.50 euros each just to sit down. So bizarre!

A few of the students went out to a local friendly bar down the street from the hotel. Danielle returned with Keith to the hotel and in the midst of taking a shower, noticed a chord coming out of the wall and brilliantly thought to pull on it.. only to have the fire alarm go off. They couldn’t figure out how to turn it off and chaos ensued. Finally a hotel rep told them how to turn off the alarm buy pressing a button. It went on for nearly 40 straight minutes.

Finally, they turned in. Goodnight!

Day 3

A day in Tuscany 🙂
They day started off raining boo… The tour guide picked them up in van and drove them out to the Italian countryside. By the time they got to their first location, Siena, the sun was shining.

Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael
In Siena, they went to a synagogue located in what was once the Sienna Ghetto. Today, there are only 50 Jews left in that area, they sometimes have a hard time making a minyan ;-). The synagogue was huge and beautiful, but it is hard to tell that it is even a synagogue since they were not allowed to build it back then. They were forced to make it resemble a church. When you walk in you are mesmerized by the huge ceilings and grandiose architecture. In the older days the women were seated very high up, where they can barely see anything. Now the woman sit on the first floor, a little closer. All synagogues in Italy are orthodox.
Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael
Siena is famous for a horse race that is held twice a year, Palio di Siena horse race is pretty wild. Take a look:

The biggest Church in Siena, Duomo di Siena, took one hundred years to complete. The stone carvings outside the church are incredible and intricate. They did an amazing job. Very unique.

Even though Siena does not have a river flow through it, it is located in between France to Rome, and the pilgrims had to pass through it to get to the cities and that is how Siena sustained a thriving economy.

The drove to lunch through the Tuscany country side. Seriously, the setting was picturesque, almost like it is on a postcard. The restaurant they went to turned out to be someones home who turned the downstairs into a restaurant. Most of the students said that it was the best meal of their lives. They ate bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, crustines with fresh toppings including beans and mushrooms, cavollo neiro – a form of black cabbage – which only grows in Tuscany and only around this time of year. They also gave them cheese wrapped with eggplant. The main course consisted of lasagna and revolita – which is a dish with the black cabbage. Third course was homemade ravioli. Of course there was wine from the local vineyard flowing. After they stuffed themselves ridiculously, came dessert. Chocolate cake with whipped cream and panna cota, one with strawberry and one with chocolate. And lastly coffee.

After lunch they drove to a farm where they also make wine so of course wine tasting was essential. They had a tour of the wine cellars and saw how they age wine in oak barrels. The farm also makes olive oil and saffron. Some people bought oil, wine, or saffron. By the way, Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world.

From there they returned to Florence area but drove to the mountains where they got to see the city view as the sun was setting. It was absolutely stunning.
Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael
Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael

They returned to the hotel to rest. They have a free night but cannot stay out late since they have and early morning tomorrow. Clara has a friend who is studying in Florence so the group will head out to meet her.

Stay tuned.

Day 4

Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael

Finally Rome, just in time to see the new Pope.

They woke up early and went to the train station to store the luggage.

Then they went to the Academy Museum to see the famous David Statue. There, they even got to see some of Michelangelo’s unfinished work which lets you really see his work in progress before you see the final pieces. It is truly unique to see all the intricate detailing, especially the veins in David’s hands. Although its king David (and Keith is making me write this) he is not circumcised – just the way got intended to be, according to the Christians.

Then they took a train to Rome, and checked into the hotel which was very close the train station. The hotel is nice and the staff is extremely friendly. They took the metro to the Colosseum. The metro was packed, probably worse than a Manhattan subway during rush hour – don’t people in Italy go to work??

At the Colosseum they met the tour guide Simona. At first everything was pleasant but then it got really cold and started raining A LOT. Despite all this, the kids still paid attention to Simona.

Only Adam, Keith and Danielle continued with the second half of the tour, others went back to the hotel. (Woahh after a few months in Israel weather, these kids cant handle a little rain?!?!).

Nonetheless, they learned a lot about Gladiators. They also realized Hollywood duped them! Apparently, the Gladiator movie is filled with lies. Example: the scene where Russel Crowe fights lions – that never happened, they only fought each other.

Also, you definitely don’t want to be a vestal virgin. Vestal virgins were six girls chosen to guard the eternal flame of Rome. They basically had to make sure a fire was ALWAYS burning 24/7. These girls had to be virgins and had to ensure the flame never went out. They were chosen at 6 years old and had to serve for 30 years. This was considered an honor. If you had sex or the flame went out, they buried you alive.

After the Colosseum they returned to the hotel, got ready, and went out to dinner at a really nice restaurant. Again, there was so much food no one could finish what they ordered.

Now they are going to a bar called the Drunken Ship, located at an area where its mostly college students.

Busy day tomorrow…

Day 5

Today was a great day even without meeting Francis. They started out with a “cute little breakfast in the hotel.“ That’s a quote from Keith. Every time I get to write these updates, I find it so funny that Keith always HAS to tell me about the food. Of course part of experiencing a new culture is the culinary adventure, but still it reminds me of taking to my grandmother who always wanted to know what the weather was like where ever I was. Keith did not tell me much about the weather, so I guess it was fine today.

Heading out for a great day of touring they braved the Metro again and again it was packed! They couldn’t even get onto the first train because it was so crowded. They had to fight their way on and off the train.

Their first site was the Capuchin Crypt which can simply be described as a museum full of bones. Seriously. It consists of several tiny chapels located beneath a church and it contains the skeletal remains of 4,000 bodies believed to be Capuchin friars buried by their order. Side note: the word friar in Hebrew means sucker – a person who gets taken advantage of. I’m pretty sure that’s not who these Capuchin guys were, but considering these religious figures take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, maybe there’s some overlap.

In any case, the bones at this crypt are displayed – as art. For example, there is one display of 1000 hip bones arranged in geometric shapes. In another, there are skeletons in priest’s garments positioned praying. The students found the whole thing disturbing, but fascinating. It reminds me a little of the ”Bodies…The Exhibition“ but an ancient version.

Moving on, the group headed next to a little fountain that Keith tried to play off as the Trevi Fountain. I kind of wonder if he did this because he got lost and didn’t want to fess up (Keith is TERRIBLE with directions) but it was apparently all part of the plan. When Keith led them to the actual Trevi Fountain, they were impressed. It’s a huge, beautiful fountain and the custom is that you throw a coin into the fountain, you’re assured of a return trip to Rome. Legend has it if you throw in two coins, you are assured to find love soon and three coins means you’ll marry soon. (If only it were that easy…) Interestingly, an estimated 3,000 euros are thrown into the fountain each day and the money is used to subsidize a supermarket for the poor in Rome


Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael
Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael
Next on the schedule was the breath taking Pantheon, an ancient temple originally built for the gods in 27 BCE and rebuilt in 126 CE. Since the Renaissance period, the Pantheon has been used as a tomb and among those buried there are the painter, Raphael, and two kings and a queen of Italy. The students loved seeing this amazing structure.

Now here’s some trivia for you… Did you know that Margherita pizza got its name from the Queen of Italy? (The queen who is buried at the Pantheon.) In 1889, during a visit to Naples, Queen Margherita was served a pizza resembling the colors of the Italian flag – red (tomato), white (mozzarella), and green (basil) – and ever since, this kind of pizza has been known after her name.

As the group continued their walking tour, they headed to the Piazza Navona. A piazza is a city square and Italy is full of them! This one features several amazing sculptural and architectural creations and in the center stands the famous Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers. There were also street performers and artists all around and the students had a great time walking around the area.

After a great lunch, they visited the Crime Museum which dealt with crime from ancient times through today. The most interesting part of this museum for our group were the displays of ancient objects, such as an actual guillotine which had been used, although not recently, a chair that they used with people accused of being witches complete with metal spikes and a lit fire underneath, and some kind of coffin lined with spikes.
Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael

The focus of the day then shifted as the group visited the site of the Jewish Ghetto which was established in 1555 by Papal decree. All the members of the Jewish community at that time were all forced to live within the walled area, which was secured with three gates that were locked at night. The money which paid for the construction of the walls of the ghetto had to be paid by the Jewish community and the area chosen to build the ghetto was the most undesirable quarter of the city, subject to constant flooding by the Tiber River. It was crowded as well.

When the Jews were emancipated, the walls of the ghetto were torn down, but even so, the students were able to get a sense of what the area was like – seeing the narrow streets, the small area that had housed thousands of people, and there is one remaining piece of the wall. And, there are still some Jews who live in the area and there are also some kosher restaurants there which the students saw. As they gathered to learn about the more modern history of the Jews in Italy, they stood at the site where in October 1943 the Jews of Rome were rounded up to be loaded into trains and taken to Auschwitz. From the thousands of Jews deported, only 16 came back. Despite this statistic, it’s important to note that Italy had one of the lowest rates of Jews being killed in Holocaust and there were a lot of gentiles who saved the lives of their Jewish neighbors or even strangers. The students had a brief ceremony at the site and lite a yartzeit candle in memory of those who perished.

They continued on their tour at the Jewish Museum and the Great Synagogue of Rome. There has been a Jewish community in Rome for over 2000 years. In fact, the Jewish community in Rome is known to be the oldest Jewish community in Europe and also one the oldest continuous Jewish settlements in the world, dating back to 161 B.C.E. when envoys of Judah Maccabee arrived. Other delegations were sent by the Hasmonean rulers and then after the Romans invaded Judea in 63 B.C.E., Jewish prisoners of war were brought to Rome as slaves, Jewish delegates came on diplomatic missions and merchants traveled to Rome seeking business opportunities. Many of those who visited Rome stayed and the Jewish population began to grow. Now, keep in mind that this was before the founding of Christianity and it was also before the distinctions between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews were established. Therefore, the Roman Jews are a bit different and they have some of their own customs and prayers just as there are differences between some Ashkenazi and Sephardi customs.

A truly SPECIAL treat awaited the students in the synagogue (which is huge and gorgeous.) They arrived while a wedding was taking place and they got the chance to see the final brachot and the breaking of the glass. Although not all Italian Jews are Orthodox, all Italian synagogues are, so at the wedding in the sanctuary, the men were seated downstairs and the women, aside from the bride and her mother) were seated upstairs in the gallery. Interestingly, there was also an organ playing and a choir singing. When the groom broke the glass, the choir sang Yerushalayim shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold) and the students really were moved by the juxtaposition having just visited the ghetto and seeing evidence of the destruction and persecution of our people with now seeing a wedding with its obvious themes of rebirth and rebuilding, coupled with the singing about Jerusalem and Israel. It was truly an experience they will remember.

And, then it was time to visit an Italian cafe for italian cafe – hot chocolate and coffee.

Finally, they had another really SPECIAL experience – visiting with Roberto Piperno, a Holocaust survivor, who has met with our Aardvark students for the last three years. The group was invited to his home which is in the Trastevere area. The building he lives in was bought by his family in 1910 and Roberto grew up there, surrounded by his family. His grandparents lived in one apartment, an aunt and uncle in another, etc. The apartment was stunning – even the moldings in the ceiling were beautiful – and from the windows you can see the Vatican.

Roberto was 5 years old and remembers the war – he told the students that at his age, he was old enough to know something was happening but not old enough to understand, and as a result, he developed a fear that he still carries with him today. He told the students about hearing the bombs landing and and not totally understanding what was happening. He also shared with the students his grandmother’s story. On the day the Nazis came to round up the Jews, his grandmother was in her apartment – the apartment which is now Roberto’s and in which the students visited with him today. His grandmother’s non-Jewish neighbor downstairs was up early that morning and saw out her window what was happening, so she raced upstairs, told Roberto’s grandmother to come hide and she hid her in her apartment so that when the Nazis searched the grandmother’s apartment, she wouldn’t be found. It saved her life. Sitting in the exact spot that the Nazis had stood searching for Roberto’s grandmother and hearing him tell the story was chilling and incredible. He also shared with them that he and his mother were saved by being hid in a convent for 6 months in a cellar underground.

They all had such a nice visit with Roberto that he then came out to dinner with the group. The area of town that he lives in is a cool, trendy part of Rome and he recommended for them a great all-you-can-eat buffet, which everyone enjoyed. After dinner, they had time to explore a bit of the nightlife in this hip area as well.

Day 6:

They woke up bright and early, stored away their luggage at the hotel, and head over to the Israeli embassy. As a rare treat they actually got to sit down with the Israeli Ambassador to Italy Naor Gilon, for over an hour. During their meeting, the Ambassador told them about the Israel-Italy relationship and explained that Italy tends to be supportive of Israel, but not in a consistent matter. The support of other countries the international group visits vary. For instance, Poland, Germany, and Czech tend to support Israel, whereas Spain Ireland tend to be less supportive. Italy is somewhere in the middle. They Ambassador explained that overall they try to focus and showcase Israeli culture, forge economic relations,and build a touristic relationship as opposed to to discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The average Italian doesn’t know much about the conflict.

Gap year in israel - aardvarkisrael

Left the embassy and went to eat lunch around the Vatican area. They are seriously living the “Eat, Prey, Love” story. They eat great Italian food, visit historic synagogues, and have fallen in love with the country…and the food.

Due to the hectic week the Vatican has had, most of the regular attractions are closed off to the public including the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica..They did however manage to see the Vatican Museum and stand at St. Peter’s square (which is where all the people stand while they wait to learn if a new Pope has been elected.

After the Vatican they went to the Spanish steps and made their way to the area where all the fancy shamncy stores are. Some of the kids bought stuff. One student, who shall remain nameless, bought a wallet from Gucci.

After they quick shopping spree they headed back to hotel, again by metro. This was the worst yet, and they were forced to physically fight their way in. It was almost as bad as a The Who concert (unfortunately, I did not live in that era, but I’ll take Keith’s word for it). I would have opted to compare it to a Justin Beiber concert. From the hotel they had a van take them to the airport. They ate dinner at the airport, where some ate Italian food and others opted for sushi.

They are boarding the plane as we speak.. I mean read.