gap year in israel

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My name is Simon Lagrange, I’m from San Diego, California, and I completed a semester of the Masa Year of Service program as a volunteer at Ichilov Hospital in central Tel Aviv.

Before arriving in Israel, I felt a bit lost in my life.

After just graduating high school, I truly wasn’t certain about what future path I wanted to take. So many options were available, but I didn’t feel certain that any of them were right for me. Not being one hundred percent sure of continuing my studies immediately, and at the same time feeling reluctant to lose out on my education with a gap year, I completed one semester of college and joined Aardvark Israel.

I decided to join the Year of Service and dedicate this semester to volunteer work in Israel in order to have the opportunity to work in a hospital setting as well as make a positive impact on Israeli society. As someone who is very connected with my Judaism and Israel as a whole, Israel also provided me with incredible opportunities to explore my Jewish identity and strengthen my cultural roots.

Even prior to the start of the semester, I was already envisioning myself fully assimilating into Israeli society. I imagined the people I would meet, and the individuals I would soon work with, and attempted to mentally foresee the beautiful yet mysterious next five months that would come to be known as a new and exhilarating chapter on my life journey.

Well, all I can say to the voice in my head that formulated all of these preconceived notions, is that life in Israel was even better than I could ever have expected. While there were times when I assume, all of us were faced with great obstacles and suffered through lower moments over the last five to ten months, the people that I was privileged enough to befriend and the experiences that I was fortunate enough to encounter, have left powerful as well as indelible marks on my life.

I remember extremely clearly my first day of volunteer work in the emergency room. I walked down to meet my boss, and instead of being gently acquainted with the inner workings of the hospital, a nurse saw my volunteer badge, and she asked me what I

was even doing in Israel as an American in a hospital. I proudly replied that I had undertaken a semester of service where I would volunteer my time for the betterment of others in the emergency room. With that statement, she looked at me with a tad bit of condescension, and asked, “Why are you wasting your time?”

I was absolutely stunned by this question, and before I even could come up with an adequate reply, I was thrown into a room bustling with doctors, paramedics, and screaming patients. With no direction or even any knowledge of my job responsibilities, I felt utterly despondent and useless.

Even after working for weeks, or months even, my progress was slow. I still didn’t know where medical supplies were located, I couldn’t navigate the hospital well enough to show patients where to go, and every time I would make a mistake, I would incessantly ask myself if I had made the right decision if the nurse I had met on my first day was right all along and if I was truly just wasting my time.

I have now arrived at the conclusion that I have actually achieved the opposite. Rather than misusing time that I could have used to continue university, my life has been enormously enriched through my volunteer work and overall semester in Israel.

By the second half of my time in the hospital, after overcoming numerous roadblocks and a significant language barrier, I found myself having purpose and satisfaction in my responsibilities.

Even the smallest of tasks were important to me, whether it was taking vital signs, translating for individuals who didn’t have sufficient comprehension of Hebrew, or even comforting a patient with a simple hand on their shoulder, fulfilled me. From all of these experiences, I learned to understand more about my purpose in my volunteer work and the products as well positive spirit that I brought to others wherever I went.

Overall, it’s very safe to assume that I have grown from the majority of experiences and interactions with others on and off the program.

From those ranging from fellow volunteers, coworkers, and strangers, to friends and roommates. For example, from my Arab colleagues and supervisors, such as Adam, I didn’t just learn more about professional responsibilities like hospital management, but more importantly about the common humanity that we all share and the goal of working to help heal others, regardless of religion or background.

I learned about generosity and family when a fellow volunteer, Alain, alongside my boss, Itzik, invited me to Pesach seder because they knew that I was alone in Israel. And I’ll never forget the first day of work after that chaotic morning experience when I was introduced to Shirley, a volunteer who spent the whole afternoon with me to help me settle into my work and provide me with the positive encouragement that I desperately needed at that point.

From my roommates and friends, I have gained so much; from having deep late-night talks with my roommate Sam to playing volleyball with friends on the beach on a calm Saturday afternoon.

Out of all of the social interactions that contributed to shaping my life perspective, one of the things that I appreciate the most about my time on Aardvark is the number of occasions I have had to develop and mature as a human being.

Throughout my five-month stay, I’ve discovered parts about myself that I potentially never would have stumbled across. For example, I’ve become more and more confident about what I desire in life, and am learning to take a more assertive Israeli approach to accomplishing life objectives while acquiring a stronger sense of self. Simple tasks such as managing the Tel Aviv bus system, improving my Hebrew to a well enough level that I can maintain a basic conversation without being immediately perceived as a foreigner, and cultivating the self-reliance to even effectively bargain for items at the shuk, were all integral facets to my overall self-growth and development.

Now aside from personal development, alongside working and living in Tel Aviv, Israel itself is an incredible country, filled with so much natural and cultural diversity for such a small nation.

Some of my favorite memories of Aardvark involve our weekly tiyuls or overnight programs, where we as students would be exposed to different parts of the country and further enhance our discernment of Israel and the multitudes of people who live here. One of my all-time favorite trips that I was able to partake in was a visit to a small Bedouin village roughly two hours north of Tel Aviv, where myself and other members of my community were able to listen to a Bedouin women-activist and educator recount to us about her life, culture, and sentiments on the State of Israel and where the Bedouin people fit within the Jewish narrative. In general, her personal story truly inspired me to learn more about Israel’s different ethnic groups and the role that they all play in the nation’s overall functioning. Throughout this program, I have mostly been surrounded by the Jewish narrative, and it was immensely interesting for me to hear all about a different side of Israel, the opposite side of the same coin so to say. Upon hearing the activist’s opinions and thoughts on the coexistence between Bedouins and Jews under the canopy of one state, it suddenly occurred to me how many times we are limited to listening to the narratives from our respective cultures and communities. But in this instance, like many other times during Aardvark, we have bestowed the honor of being able to bear witness to a different yet equally valid and genuine perspective on Israeli existence. From then on, I decided to take this newfound perspective with me wherever I went, especially my workplace, where every day I strove to help both Jewish and non-Jewish patients alike with the same amount of warmth and compassion.

Now during the last five months of our lives, I know that we all have borne witness to major events happening across the country. And I won’t pretend that I am an expert on the Israeli political and cultural tensions. In fact, I am far from it.

But from what I have seen and observed from my time here, I can say with even more confidence that the situation in this country is more nuanced and complicated than any news channel, political activist, or foreign government seems to believe. While others may have witnessed Saturday nights in Tel Aviv as pure hordes of thousands of people protesting what they deemed to see as a fanatic theocratic government, I saw so much hope as everyone waved their Israeli flags with pride and chanted together for a brighter future for themselves and their community. Even after these protests, I would see the next day religious and secular medical staff in the hospital talking, joking, and even hugging as usual, with no outward disdain or dislike for each other. And even after a terrorist incident never prevented my Arab colleagues from greeting me with utmost kindness every morning.

This gives me hope to see how especially in a medical setting, we were all able to treat each other with respect and courtesy in spite of our differences. And more so, how our differences are smaller than everything that we have in common. At the end of the day, I realized that everyone I knew and worked with was just people working for the same cause and with the same desire to be appreciated, valued, and happy.

And outside of my volunteer work, some of my biggest milestones during my stay in Israel have been improving my Hebrew, socializing with Israelis from my age group, and catching a glimpse of the Israeli narrative from their eyes.

One of the many goals that I set for myself before starting this journey was to drastically improve my Hebrew. For me, speaking better Hebrew is the best way to assimilate into Israeli culture and get the fullest experience living here. That being said, I was so excited when our Aardvark community had the chance to meet and interact with a mostly totally Israeli mechina (pre-military college) program. Through these amazing individuals, I was able to practice my Hebrew and create friendships, such as with Naor, who one day out of the blue asked to see and hang out with me and a few other friends in Florentine. I even had the privilege of being able to host an alternative guided- meditation Shabbat at our mechina Shabbaton, which provided me with another way to connect more closely with others and bring something new and good to the Aardvark-mechina relationship. And out of the friendships that I made with a variety of people, I kept on noticing why I so enjoyed spending time with them. It wasn’t just getting the chance to practice my Hebrew, it was about being surrounded by this Israeli zest for life, passion, and the ability to continue laughing and smiling in the face of a negative situation. As a result, the more I spoke and refined my Hebrew, the more I felt connected to Israel as an Israeli and not a foreigner. To this day when I engage in a conversation in Hebrew, I’m filled with that same passion and intensity that I loved and observed in my Israeli relationships.

And I would now like to end on this hopeful note: Since landing in this country, Israel has supplied so much for me spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. I am, and always will be eternally grateful for everything that I have seen and done here and for all of the wonderful individuals, like my Madricha, Noy, my roommates, and my friends, that have forever impacted me in a positive way. Now, as I prepare to disembark from this unbelievable adventure, I will continue on my path feeling satisfied, wiser, and completely confident that I made the best decision of my life in flying halfway across the world to come to a place filled with opportunities to grow and thrive.

And when all is said and done, we have emerged from this year more independent, more mature, and ready to face that daunting yet exciting road to our futures. We understand that we are capable, we understand how to overcome the hindrances and failures that will arrive, and most importantly, we know that the world is eagerly awaiting us with open arms as we prepare to embark on a journey to leave our mark and reach our highest potential.

Thank you Aardvark, and the best of luck to you all.

My semester in israel - simon lagrange