The moment I was accepted to college, I decided to take a gap year. I was confident that this was something I wanted and needed to do. As I walked up the steps to John F. Kennedy Airport on January 9th, I found my stomach turning, my palms sweating and my heart beating. “Why am I doing this program?” – I asked. “What if it’s terrible?” “What if I don’t find friends?” “Who are my roommates going to be?” The list goes on. Now, looking back at my apprehensiveness about the program, I laugh at myself. What seemed daunting then – seems like child’s play now. I attribute the confidence, independence, and strength I have built here to Israel, to Aardvark, and to the people I have met here. This wonderful growth I have achieved has greatly impacted my Jewish identity and connection to Judaism.

That is not to say everything went as planned. I have had my fair share of challenges throughout the semester.

On a lovely morning in February, I woke up to find myself coughing and unable to get out of bed. After recently recovering from strep throat, this was quite simply the last thing I wanted to deal with. I had just gotten the hang of going to the doctor in Israel. In fact, if you ask my Madrich, Tal, she jokes that she is my personal medical secretary since I have been to the doctor so many times. Maccabi had actually become the most frequently called number on my phone. After trekking to the doctor’s office and checking in, I was pretty pleased with how familiar and smooth the process was. I spoke too soon, though. After communicating to him that I was concerned about my bad cough, he tells me I have bronchitis. ְAt that point, I cried uncontrollably in the doctor’s office. After looking at me for a few seconds he gave me a large smile and a few Ze Beseder (It’s Ok) to which I screamed in a hyperventilated sob Ze Lo Beseder (It’s not Ok). And that is the first time I confidently spoke Hebrew in Israel. All joking aside, I was prescribed antibiotics, and bronchitis went away in a few days.

From bronchitis to a fractured foot to a few different illnesses – it felt as though I was never given a break. At the time of all these unfortunate issues and being the dramatic person that I am, I felt as though the world was ending. Turns out – these unfortunate struggles are arguably the best thing to have happened to me in the past five months. Being able to independently and successfully find a way to solve them is something I was unable to do before I came here. I learned to locate the doctor’s office, fill my prescriptions, handle grocery shopping – you name it. And as little as these accomplishments may sound, to me they represent my growth, my maturity and my independence gained in the past five months. The reason I was able to overcome these challenges is threefold: Firstly, culturally, Israel and America could not be more different. While this is a massive generalization and my own personal assessment of Israeli culture, Israel’s first concern is their safety – everything else comes second. In America, we are fortunate enough to not have to worry about our country’s safety on a daily basis. Thus our first priorities and concerns are wildly different. That, to some extent, is what makes Americans so different from Israelis. Israelis seemed more direct and harsh in an American’s eyes – or at least in mine. Israeli culture took me a while to adapt to and understand and I am happy I finally did. It forced me to realize that while it may feel as though the world is ending because my foot is fractured or that my throat hurts from bronchitis – in the grand scheme of things, my problems are fixable and pretty minor. The ability to overcome challenges and to recognize that while it may be hard, it is possible to fix, was a sign of growth.

Secondly, Aardvark, more specifically Tal, was a major contributing factor to my growth here. Tal knew exactly when to help me and when to let me figure some things out by myself. I attribute a lot of my success here to her. Her ability to recognize when I actually needed her to get involved versus when I was just lacking confidence in my ability to do something independently is something I am eternally grateful for. She pushed me to break out of my comfort zone and truly live like an adult in Tel Aviv. I now feel a lot more confident in my ability to overcome challenges in my life and I feel so lucky to be able to say that.

Thirdly, the bonds I have formed and the people I have met in this program have had a massive impact on my life. I am grateful to have met such wonderful people, who make me laugh every day – even with pigeon fleas or bronchitis. I am confident the friendships and connections I have formed here will stay strong for the remainder of my life.

Finally, the most beautiful part about my growth is the way it has opened my eyes to the importance of my Jewish identity. I think prior to coming into this program, I always viewed being connected to Judaism as something my parents wanted for me, not something I wanted for myself. Perhaps due to the lack of maturity or social pressures, I felt from my friends to steer away from religious beliefs, I never allowed myself to truly connect with them. Coming to Israel, and more specifically Aardvark – my eyes were opened. Here, it was not only “cool” to be connected to Judaism, but it was also normal. I felt that every single one of my friends made an effort to fully and proudly immerse themselves in Israeli culture and Judaism as a whole. It made us feel more at home, more part of a community, and strongly bonded us.

My growth also, in a way, represents how I fell in love with Israeli culture – and Israelis in general. Despite the ongoing conflicts in Israel – somehow I feel an electric vibe in the air every day. I am always met with smiling faces and huge hugs when leaving my apartment. This ability to make light in any situation has been incredibly inspiring to me and has made me feel a deep love and connection for this country and the people in it. With my ability to overcome challenges and approach them in a positive and mature light, I attest to what I have learned from Israelis and the way they live their lives. Once I recognized that Israel and Israeli culture was responsible for this – I fell even more in love with this place. I see this influence in my friends as well. It is truly incredible how a country that has faced so much difficulty has become such a wonderful place. I feel not just a stronger connection to Israel but a stronger connection to my Jewish identity because of it.

Now, going back to January 9th on the steps of John F Kennedy airport – I laugh at myself. That anxious feeling I had prior to leaving home seems silly to me. What that feeling really was – was a lack of confidence in myself. Aardvark and my time in Israel have helped me see that no matter what challenges life hits me with, I am fully equipped to deal with them all. And on top of this amazing accomplishment, it also made me truly appreciate my Jewish history and connection. I was right, taking a gap year was the best decision I could have made and I am so thankful I did.