gap year in israel

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My name is Jordi; I was born in Sydney Australia, and for the past 12 years, my South African parents have raised me in a tiny town in Switzerland. Growing up, I attend an international school; I can say with confidence that I’m pretty well-rounded, well-travelled, and have experienced lots of opportunities in my life, which to me, has been a core aspect of my upbringing.

Last May, I finished high school with the goal in mind to study Nutrition and Dietetics in Sydney, Australia. So switching hemispheres meant that I automatically had to wait 9 months before starting university in February of the next year. If you’ve come to learn anything about me, you know that I can’t sit around and do nothing for that long of a time, yet even sit in Hebrew class for an hour and a half twice a week. I am the type of person who makes the most of time, stays busy and likes to take every opportunity I come across. That’s when I realised that I wanted to do a semester abroad. Then the question remained, “What would I do?” That’s when I found Aardvark online, which is the first thing that came up, which we soon learned was the secret to why it’s named Aardvark in the first place.

When I looked at the Aardvark website, the first thing that caught my eyes was the statement “make Israel yours”. From this, I knew Aardvark was the program I wanted to embark on, as I knew it would give me the freedom to make my gap year mine by discovering my identity. Four months later, I can truly say that it’s a value that hasn’t been lost.

Every day, since I arrived in Israel, I’ve encountered opportunities. 122 days, 7,320 hours, 440,000 minutes, 26 million seconds I’ve spent here in Israel. In that time, I’ve travelled across Israel, from the north to the south, literally to the boarders. I’ve swam in nearly every body of water in the country, from the Kinneret, to the Mediterranean, to the Dead Sea, and have even found my favourite hummus place by now.

Although it might sound like I’ve spent a lot time here, the past 4 months have flown by faster than I could ever have imagined. However, each second that I’ve spent had has been an opportunity to turn make something great. And I can say with confidence, that I’ve taken in all the step to make Israel mine.

Living in the heart of Europe for the majority of my life has meant that I’ve grown up travelling# and exploring the world, which has exposed me to various religions, languages and traditions, and I’ve grown up respecting each and every one. Since I was 6 years old, I have been the only Jewish student in my grade, out of 120 students, so for me, Judaism has come solely from my home. This has always been challenging, since all my friends would party on a Friday night, when I’d rather stay at home for Shabbat. Or when the entire neighbourhood has their Christmas trees, Christmas lights, and Santa decorations up all month, whilst we were the only ones who had a chanukiah at our window. Or having to skip school on Yom Kippur, and having a major test the next day. All of these obstacles are ones that I dealt with, but never did it affect my Jewish beliefs and customs.

During my years in Europe, I can say that I kept a lot of my Jewish identity to myself. I didn’t share much, and instead, participated in things that I thought would make me fit in, like secret Santa, Easter egg hunts and annual Christmas tree decorating. I now look back on these things and regret that I didn’t share more about Judaism and stand up for what I believed in. However, to be honest, I just didn’t know how to stand up for myself.

Now, it feels natural to say “Chag Sameach” on high holidays and “Shabbat Shalom” on the weekends – something that I’ve never done before. I fit in naturally and can be myself. I don’t have to hide or pretend to be someone who I’m not.

After living in the heart of Israel, I can now say with confidence that I can defend not only myself, but also the country. I’ve learnt my way around the mazes of Florentine, I walk down the streets with my head held high saying “shalom” and “hiyush” to locals and shop workers. I’ve found my favourite restaurants and cafes amongst hidden alleyways, I can walk into Cofix without having to say my order. I have my daily chat with the man working at the fruit and vegetable store across the road, and I have even become such a regular at local stores here, such as the bakery on Levinsky, that I can walk out with them trusting that I’ll pay them back another day.

My regular runs down to the beach, workouts at the outdoor gyms, and relaxing walks at sunset are things that I haven’t taken for granted. Within 4 months I’ve become more integrated and felt more at home than I ever have during my 12 years of living in Switzerland. I’ve never had such a strong feeling of belonging to a community and a culture as I have here. I didn’t think I’d become so attached to this country, and I didn’t think saying goodbye would be this hard.

Aardvark has given me countless opportunities that have broadened my knowledge about subjects such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, or secular and religious issues, as well as Israel’s dynamic history – topics that I’ve never studied before. Zionism was not even a term that I had heard of before coming here. I remember my first Zionism class – I started by looking up “Zionism” in the dictionary. To be a Zionist is to believe in the development and protection of the Jewish nation that is now Israel. I can now understand the importance of protecting our land and our people, and nothing is more powerful than uniting as one. We have brought thousands of Jews from around the world back to our ancient homeland, and that is something I will always admire – especially since I’ve experienced it first-hand.

Looking back at key moments, I can definitely say that I’ve taken in every opportunity. Joining the sea sports group was one of the best decisions I made here, as not only did I get to bond with our little sea sports family, but also surf the waves of Tel Aviv, rock climb, practice yoga on water, windsurf, and even get my adrenaline pumping during indoor skydiving, ATVing and more. I’ve also made an effort when it comes to travelling the country using my own initiative. My friends and I have been on some life-changing trips such as hiking and camping in Masada, swimming in natural springs, visiting nature reserves in Ein Gedi and getting involved in local activities such as a White City Shabbat Dinner and sunset yoga on the beach.

The past semester contained both high and low points, all which have added to my experience and I have grown and learnt from them. Of course, there were times that I was homesick, or fed up with the mess in the apartment, or times that I didn’t feel like going to class. But reflecting on my experience as a whole, the occasional negatives don’t even make a dent. In fact, I think most of us learn the most when something goes downhill. For instance, the occasional disputes amongst my roommates have taught me how to live and cooperate with the four incredible girls I was placed with, each one different from the other, and unique in their own way, who I have grown and learnt from. We cook, bake, clean (well, some of us), have movie nights, host Shabbat dinners, and I guess run a pretty awesome household together. This is something that I’m really going to miss. Living with others was not something I was used to and in fact, it was one of my biggest fears before coming here. But now, I fear going back home to a much quieter and cleaner household!

I just want to thank Aardvark for giving me the opportunity to embark on this journey that I will only ever look back upon in a positive light. I’m going to miss it so very much, and I hope to see myself back in this special country soon. All I can say is that I’ve definitely made Israel mine – but it doesn’t end here. Making Israel mine is a lifetime education and this semester, Aardvark gave me a platform to embrace opportunities. And now it’s up to me to find my own.