Greetings, readers of the world. My name is Ash Swidler and, like many people on the programme, I live in New York. Shocker! However, all sarcasm aside, having spent my entire life until recently in the UK, my reasons for participating in Aardvark Israel are far from simple…
My brother, Nathan, spent his 2019 fall semester on Aardvark Israel and I visited him in early October. After that trip, I was hooked; I knew not only would I return later that December, but also in September 2020, so that I, too, could begin my own journey of self-exploration in the Holy Land. However, as dreams go, this one was short-lived after I was unable to defer enrolment for university. Days passed. Weeks. Months. All hope had been lost – all but a sliver. And then, one day, late in summer, karma called, and I was informed that incoming first-year students would not begin classes until January. A four-month trip to Israel was the perfect fit.
I chose Aardvark Israel because I felt a strong desire, and indeed desperate need, for a cultural and spiritual break from the traditional educational system. Having spent my entire academic career preparing intensely for every new challenge and test that was presented to me, I was itching for a new enriching, enlightening religious experience to grow my character and get ready for life as a young Jewish adult.
My fall semester in beautiful Tel Aviv gave me an opportunity to access the peculiarities of the Israeli environment: learn Hebrew; volunteer with local non-profits; give aid to those affected by the COVID crisis and beyond; and further propagate my understanding of politics and entrepreneurship on a global scale.
The incredible volunteering opportunities Aardvark Israel provided had both a local and national effect. Sometimes, our efforts only reached a few people/one neighborhood – like when we gave blood through Magen David Adom or participated in a ‘Florentine Trash Pick-Up’ program. At other times, the impact of Aardvark Israel’s students could be felt at a national level. By working with ‘Leket Israel’, we played our part in harvesting surplus agricultural produce which would then be distributed to those in need throughout Eretz Yisrael.
Whilst these activities were fulfilling, once (the first!) lockdown was lifted, our true Aardvark Israel experience had begun…
Classes were in-person, and so our learning was much more intimate and engaging. Having experienced the toxicity of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism first-hand at my high school, I found Sasha Gold’s course ‘Our Promised Land?’ to be a great way to explore the hotly debated question of ‘is anti-Zionism anti-Semitism?’- to which the answer is a resounding YES. Through engaging with Zionist texts and ideas, I was able to delve deep into the political turmoil, both historically and currently, through my own reflection and passionate debate with my fellow Aardvarkians.
Beyond the four walls of the classroom, I was fortunate enough to intern with ‘Homrun’ – a first-of-its-kind network-based venture startup, focusing on accelerating the growth of Israeli companies in North America, specifically through the Jewish community. Homrun enables its members’ to support Israel with their contact-book, not with their checkbook, to be involved with Israel’s innovation from the ground up. During my few months working both virtually and in person, I provided assistance to Homrun companies by analysing competitors and gathering marketing research for their members, so they could remain involved during such unprecedented times. From time to time I even joined meetings with their companies and helped during the vetting process.
During my time in Israel, by no means did I simply lay back and take it easy. I broadened my horizons, put lessons from philanthropy into practice, and got out of my comfort zone in a country with more language barriers than one (skydiving merely being a fun day out). Ultimately, I learnt how to navigate the world before me in a way like no other. And for that, I am extremely grateful – for my father and brother, for my newfound friends and Florentin, and of course, for Aardvark Israel.