Hi, my name is Hannah Hepner and I am from just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. I am lucky enough to have been able to call the neighborhoods of both Florentin, Tel Aviv and Nachlaot, Jerusalem (both equally vibrant in their own ways) my home over the past seven months.
Coming to Israel was not in my game plan. Taking a gap year wasn’t even in my game plan. The plan up until July was, as it has always been, graduate high school, then onto college, and then straight to graduate school. But then, life suddenly offered me a new opportunity, one that required taking a year off.
I distinctly remember sitting at my kitchen table on Skype with Jane, a gap year counselor (yes, those exist) my parents had hired to help me make my decision (yes, I was this indecisive) feeling somewhat uninspired by the options she was rattling off for how to spend my gap year. Then, my mom looked at me and said “Hey, what about going to Israel?”
Next thing I knew, I was signed up for Aardvark Israel in Tel Aviv for the fall semester. On Yom Kippur, while wandering the empty streets with my newfound friends, I decided to take the leap and stay for my second semester in Jerusalem. I don’t doubt for one second that these were the right decisions.
My time on Aardvark has given me friends and memories that I’m sure will last a lifetime, but it has also given me the tools for success that I didn’t even know I needed. It has taught me everything from how to live with others (no matter how different we may be) to how to defend the State of Israel when I inevitably face anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments on my college campus next year.
Aardvark has also introduced me to the most extensive Jewish community I have ever been part of. A community in which my coworkers wish me a “Shabbat Shalom” as I leave the office each Thursday afternoon, a community in which nineteen year olds willingly spend their Wednesday nights sitting around with a rabbi, eating lukewarm pizza and asking him questions about Judaism’s take on modern day issues, a community in which it’s not unusual to have grown up in a Kosher home or to be a Latin-American Jew.
Living in Jerusalem, a melting pot of religions and the crux of decades-long conflict, has given me an entirely new perspective. At my internship at the Jerusalem Post, we feel every breath and every movement made in the Middle East. We have the opportunity to report on live events in the very place in which they occur, events that I previously felt disconnected to and knew very little about. We watch as history is created.
However, my time on Aaardvark has not been all fun and games — it has been complex. It was with Aardvark that I visited my first concentration camp in the countryside of the Czech Republic, that I learned about the convoluted Arab-Israeli conflict from both a Jewish settler and a Palestinian activist in the settlement of Gush Etzion in the West Bank, that I saw firsthand the impoverished community of Jews in Gondar, Ethiopia, awaiting the day that they will be able to make aliyah to the land of Israel.
I finally understand my grandfather’s undying love for Israel and insistence on visiting and supporting the Jewish State. As our campus Rabbi once said to us, “Whether or not you believe in G-d, it’s a miracle that we are here today, in the Land of Israel. After millennia of persecution, we managed to turn this tiny piece of desert into the Start-Up Nation and the only democracy in the Middle East in just 72 years. That, to me, is a miracle.” This miracle is what inspires Jews worldwide, myself included, to get up and see what Israel is all about.
Spending this year in Israel has allowed me to discover that magic that everyone always talks about with regards to Israel and truly make this place into my home. I urge everyone to come find this magic for themselves and as our infamous Aardvark bucket hats read, “Make Israel Yours.”