Shalom everyone! My name’s Danya, and I’m from Weston, Massachusetts (for those who know Jews in the Boston area, I live right next to Newton or “Jewton” as it’s affectionately called). Last semester, I had the amazing opportunity to live in Jerusalem right next to Shuk Machne Yehuda. A week ago, though, I moved into my new apartment in Tel Aviv in the Florentin area. From apartment 2 in the H building of JTower to apartment 2 on Hashuk Street, I’m excited for H2 to become my home all over again, despite now needing to squeegee the bathroom floor.
While a fair amount of people signed up for Aardvark Israel in a desperate scramble to find an alternative to online college, I signed up over a year ago before anyone had ever uttered the words COVID-19. Taking a gap year had long been a dream of mine. The idea of going off the beaten path and taking a year to explore the world, learn about myself, and push myself outside of my comfort zone seemed like an opportunity that was made for me. As soon as my senior year began, I busied myself by looking at various options. After much deliberation, I settled on Aardvark Israel because of the independence it gives its students. I loved the idea of living in an actual apartment, doing my own grocery shopping, and having open weekends.
Despite the unexpected twists and turns that COVID has brought to the year, that freedom is exactly what has made it worthwhile and meaningful. While going straight from a two-week quarantine into a month-long lockdown could have dampened my spirits about the year, it actually heightened my excitement about the possibilities once lockdown was over. Skydiving, hiking, Haifa, camping, krav maga classes, Eilat, the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens; slowly but surely, my Israel bucket list has grown. With no specific organizational structure, the list is a creative outlet for my random ideas and personal goals for the year.
Although most of my days last semester were spent interning for the Jerusalem Press Club and learning in class about topics like the Arab Israeli conflict and Jewish medical ethics, the real highlight of my time here has been crossing activities off the list by taking the initiative to plan my own experiences.
Three days after lockdown ended, while Aardvark Jerusalem was volunteering at Kibbutz Ketura for a few days, I found myself booking my first ever Airbnb the night before my anticipated stay in Tel Aviv. Two weekends later, my friends and I took a bus up to Tiberias and biked partially around the Kinneret before pausing to go swimming right there next to the border of Jordan. On yet another occasion, I coordinated a trip for 16 of us to go rappelling by the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. From walking through the botanical garden’s holiday lights exhibit to visiting friends in Haifa to learning about the Six-Day War at Ammunition Hill, I jump at each chance I have to make the most of my time in Israel. Something about having spent so long in various forms of quarantine has made me crave adventure.
Most recently, I spent winter break practicing my Hebrew in two-hour-a-day Ulpan lessons I arranged for myself and working for Shorashim, a grassroots organization that fosters dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, which I reached out to after we visited their site in Gush Etzion on a Tiyul.
Each of these experiences has helped me to do exactly what I envisioned for my gap year. In traveling around the country, I’ve begun my world exploration. By throwing myself into new activities, I’ve learned more about what I enjoy and what I don’t, what motivates me and what makes me struggle. In forcing myself to take initiative, I’ve not just gone out of my comfort zone, I’ve expanded it.
As I start my semester in Tel Aviv, I’m excited about all of the ways I know I’ll be inspired by my surroundings, supported by my friends, encouraged to grow by my internship, challenged by my teachers, and welcomed by the Aardvark Israel staff here. My goal is not to finish my bucket list but rather to end the year with more items left to do on it.