Hi, my name is Sarah Sharwood and I’m from Sydney, Australia. I’m nearing the end of my Spring Semester in Tel Aviv, however, I’m not too sad yet as I will be partaking in the summer semester add-on. Next year in March, I’ll be attending the University of Technology Sydney to study Visual Communications and Creative intelligence.
I heard about Aardvark Israel through my school and some people who had done the program in recent years. I didn’t always know I wanted to do Aardvark let alone a gap year program. I thought I’d be better off travelling by myself – in hindsight I’m so incredibly grateful I didn’t do that. Aardvark has the perfect combination of program/structure with freedom and the ability to literally “Make Israel Yours”. It offers the ability to interact with Israel, particularly Tel Aviv, as if it is our home.
My internship at “Hagal Sheli” has been a life-changing experience (to say the least). I remember at the beginning of the program when we were all being placed in our internships, I was super nervous about going to “Hagal Sheli”. It’s a non-profit educational surf program for kids at risk – from any and all walks of life. The people who work there – who I’d now call my family – are the most caring, fun and welcoming people. I’ve created connections for life and I feel I have an extra support system not only in Israel but in my life. Working there entailed leading weekly classes and helping around the centre. Leading the classes was my favourite part and has truly impacted the way I see the world and what it means to help others. I witnessed teenagers, who have immensely difficult circumstances, grow and develop into very different people. I watched, and was a part of, making these kids feel as if they had futures, a support system, and many times just a friend to talk to. That is something truly special. That’s something I am sincerely grateful to have experienced.
The diversity of the students on the program really surprised me, and it’s something that wouldn’t be found on many other programs. I’ve made friends from Brazil, Argentina, Belgium, South Africa, America, London, and more. It’s so special to experience my gap year amongst so many different cultures – it has taught me how much there is beyond my home in Sydney and how much I still have to learn about the world. Through Aardvark and my gap year, I’ve come to understand that the world is full of surprises. From the discussions on Tuesday night’s “Parsha and Pizza”, to Covid-19 that sent the world into lockdown. Despite many of my Gap Year plans being cancelled, being with all the other students and staff during this period has been super eye opening. We’ve been able to adapt to the rapidly-changing conditions, while simultaneously building stronger connections with each other.
I was fortunate enough to visit Ethiopia in early February, a place that I’d never imagined I’d be in my gap year. We spent 5 days travelling Addis Ababa and Gondar, learning about the history and specifically the Jews of Ethiopia. Something that will stay vivid in my mind was being able to sit in on the youth movement Bnei Akiva’s Shabbat service. Kids from age 5-18 filled an enormous room while singing the most beautiful Shabbat tunes that, no matter where we were from, we all recognised. I think that’s the most connected to my Judaism I’ve ever felt in my life. I understood the importance of Judaism to many people, how it is a way to keep hope and fighting for a better life. The Jews of Ethiopia face discrimination from the wider Ethiopian society, but also from Israel, and it’s something that we should all be aware of and strive to abolish. From spending 12 hours in a hot and sweaty bus, to eating the same (delicious) food every day, to falling asleep in places we definitely should not have, Ethiopia holds a special place in my heart and I know I’ll be back there soon.
To future Aardvarkians, take every opportunity you can get. Step out of your comfort zone – I know its cliché but those are the experiences you’ll remember the most. Choose a volunteering or interning experience that makes you nervous. Being in a position of unfamiliarity is not always negative – it’s where you become independent and learn the most. I was close to bailing on my internship at “Hagal Sheli” before I even started because I was so nervous – I didn’t speak Hebrew, I didn’t know how to get there by myself, I was walking into something that was so unfamiliar and scary. But being in that situation has taught me so much more than I’ve learnt while I’ve been in “comfortable” and “safe” environments. Also, find time to be with everyone on the program. Everybody I’ve met is so special and overall, they are the reason my year has been so special. I have lifelong friendships in every part of the globe. I’m so grateful for the year I’ve had so far. Despite this year taking an unprecedented turn, I really have had the time of my life and would not have changed anything!!
I’m really looking forward to the summer semester add-on. Knowing that I get to spend another 2 months with most people on the program is something that I’m so excited for! I’m more than excited to go back to my internship, to travel Israel, and to soak up as much of the Israeli summer that I can.