gap year in israel

Check out our social media to see what our students have been up to this past week!

Dear Parents,

Sadly, our semester is soon coming to an end, and despite us not wanting it to end, soon we will back in our homes outside of Israel. While we are sad, we have very much decided to make the most of every last moment in Israel and on Aardvark. As a result, this was a jam packed week, and we have A LOT to tell you. This week we want to start our week with Saturday night.

On Saturday night after Shabbat, many of us filled the Ulam, and watched a live stream of the Eurovision Song Contest. We watched all 26 finalists take to the stage and perform, and when Netta Barzilai took the stage, we cheered so loudly that I think we woke the neighbors – oops! We were glued to the screen as we waited with baited breathe to see the results. And guess what? NETTA WON FOR ISRAEL!!!! Some of us got goosebumps, some of us cried, feeling so proud to be in Israel and of Netta.

What made that night even more special, was that it was Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day). There were parties in the streets and fireworks. Netta’s said when she won, that “Next Year in Jerusalem!” You can bet, we will be there!!!

Sunday, was Yom Yerushalyim. We had apartment meetings in the afternoon, where we discussed the security over the next week (with the American Embassy moving to Jerusalem), and began the discussion about leaving Israel and packing and so much more.

Late on Sunday afternoon, we went out into the streets of Jerusalem (all the streets were closed to cars) to dance and sing with all the residents. We walked all the way to the Old City and town, where we saw hundreds of Israeli and Jerusalem flags and the Flag Dance, in which primarily religious teenagers march through the Old City decked in white and blue. The march begins in downtown Jerusalem and it moved slowly towards the Western Wall. We joined in the Flag Dance and just could not believe our eyes. There were over 45,000 people (!!!!), we felt extremely proud to be a part of this.

On Monday, we had our last ulpan class. We have learned mamash a lot this year and we were sad that it is over. Our ulpan teachers had so much patience for us and really helped us improve our reading and writing skills, but most importantly, our Hebrew speaking. We are so thankful for how much they helped us navigate our year here. We wouldn’t have been able to order shawarma or talk to random Israelis on the bus without them!

On Monday evening, we went around the corner from our building, for a game of billiards. The students went, accompanied by their madrich (counselor) Ofek Gabrieli, and besides enjoying a game of billiards, they also spoke about their future and where and what everyone is doing. It was a really great last Monday night optional activity and a great way to still bond with one another.

On Tuesday we toured Abu Ghosh, a peaceful Arab village just outside Jerusalem. We started with a visit to a monastery. There we learned about the Arab Christian community living in Israel, afterwards we spoke to the Imam of the mosque and he too answered some of our questions about the various religions that exist in Israel.

We continued on to a lookout and saw all of Abu Gosh, and our tour guide told us the history of the village. It was a beautiful view and it was great to gain a better understanding of the real conflict happening in Israel.

For lunch, we went to THE BEST Hummus restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious ethnic lunch. Tourists and Israelis alike come from all over to eat there. We ate Hummus, Falafel, Salads, and more and all of us left satisfied and full to the brim. Everyone took Hummus to go because it was just that good!

Halley Adina Cooper said, “During this trip, the highlights were going to the Hummus restaurant and visiting the mosque. The hummus place was definitely a high as we got to taste a local cuisine in a local restaurant. Also, we got unlimited pita, hummus, falafal, and salads too, which made all the students happy. Many of us had also never been to a mosque before, and speaking to the Imam was very enlightening. We happened to be there the day before the beginning of Ramadan. I learned many things I had not known and that really helped me come to a place of understanding and respect for the community. We ended our visit by wishing him a ‘Ramadan Kareem’ which means ‘Happy Ramadan’.”

On Wednesday, we had our final classes of the semester. It was hard to say goodbye to the teachers who have taught us so much and who have enlightened us and helped us grow this year with their knowledge. In our last Zionism class, our teacher brought us pizza and as Natalie Selvin said, “We wrapped up the syllabus from the beginning to the end of the semester. We talked about the issues of bringing the Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and the pros and cons of that decision. We know this won’t be the end of our discussions on this matter, but sure received a lot of information that will help us moving forward and assist us when confronted with this topic in the future.”

On Wednesday evening, we gathered for Aardvark’s final ceremony . As you can imagine it was truly meaningful. One student from each city had been chosen to share their experiences through the year/semester, a few students performed musical numbers, and there was also a wonderful slideshow of the whole year made by Charlee (our madricha) and Nadiv Gold Edelstein. Among the performers was Tamir Ryan Cohen who played guitar beautifully, while students from Tel Aviv sang. All of the speeches were inspiring and I have included a portion of one of them to give you a taste.

Benjamin David Oken, an amazing student, wrote: (This is only a part of it)

“I really didn’t know what to expect in coming here and the day I left, and when I got off the plane, it didn’t seem real. The only thing I knew about Israel was from a few pictures, and how the Middle East looked in movies. While I don’t remember specifically what my expectation was, I couldn’t have been more wrong. And, after 9 months of living here, I really can say that I do have a better understanding of Israel and Israeli life. The biggest surprise when coming here was the amount of diversity in the form of religion, race and the landscape. I had thought Israel was only Jews and didn’t realize that there are Arabs, Druze, and Christians all coexisting. While being on the Aardvark program has given me a better understanding of Israel, it has also given me a better understanding of myself. Leaving home was a big deal for me because towards the end of high school and the start of Aardvark I was a quiet person. The first two weeks were very hard and I got a bit homesick because I was on my own. At home I always had someone to help me do things but when I came here I experienced full freedom to do what I wanted and it helped me to become a more independent, decisive, and outgoing person. Another way that I have changed a lot is being more honest both with myself and other people. What led me to be more honest was getting comfortable with my friends and showing my true self, I felt that once I was honest with who I am I could be more honest with other people about anything. I can truly say that I have become a better person because of all the experiences I’ve had here, and am happier and more comfortable with the person that I am today.”

To conclude, here are the thoughts of Joshua Christopher Morris Allen:

“I have loved every minute of this program but it wasn’t easy at first. I definitely faced a few bumps in the road to get to this point. At the beginning of the program I didn’t really enjoy it, truth be told. I found it hard to connect with people, feel comfortable and just to get used to Israel as a country. I think the culture difference came as a shock and the fact that I didn’t speak Hebrew made it very hard for me to fit in. I was very homesick and I got sick quite often. It wasn’t easy at first but with time I think I did a good job at overcoming these bumps. I knew I was a strong person before this program but I am definitely way stronger than I was before.

I now have a different respect for Israel. After having the privilege of travelling all over the country I was able to see sights and towns that I never would’ve had the chance to see if I was just a tourist in the country.

I now know that I made the right decision coming on this program and I also now know why I am here. Thank you to everyone who has been a part of my Aardvark experience. You have all individually shaped me into the person I am standing in front of you all.”

Thursday morning, had us setting out very early, to Tel Aviv for a Masa Seminar called, “Conflict in Context : Back to Campus”. Going back home after a year in Israel, can be very difficult on so many levels. Our Aardvark staff have been helping us with the emotional aspect, and Masa held this day so that they could help prepare us for what is to come on college campuses. Between the BDS Movement and Anti-Israel Activists, this was a day to help us know how to answer and stand up for what it is we believe in.

We began the morning with a lovely breakfast spread and opening remarks and Q&A session with Mr. Dan Shapiro – the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel.

Next we had a session titled, “Check In & Check Out”, led by our staff, and focusing on different narratives from our year in Israel in terms of what we expected or didn’t expect and what the actual outcome was. Many students brought up the current political situation and how the situation here has them thinking more about what will be when they return home, and friends and family ask them what is really happening here.

We were then given the option between numerous lectures from ‘Cyber and its influence on the military challenges of Israel’ to ‘Prospects for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its resolution.’ Retired Brigadier General Shlomo Brom, head of the program on Israeli-Palestinian Relations, spoke to us about democracy and what would happen if everyone had equal rights in Israel.

For lunch, we sat in different groups on the grass, where we met with Masa Campus Ambassadors and on-campus organizations that we could become a part of when we go back to college in the States or elsewhere.

Following lunch, we once again split into different seminars on different topics from negative social media and TV to how to debate BDS properly. One of the speakers was Hen Mazzig. After 5 years of military service as a humanitarian officer in the IDF working in the West Bank to help Palestinian civilians as an openly gay commander, he started working to defend Israel around the world. He led an interactive workshop sharing his story and why Alan Dershowitz said that he is ‘BDS’s worst nightmare’. We discussed what BDS is, looked at case studies, and together we tried to crack the questions the pro-Israel community can’t answer.

After another workshop, we had a coffee break, and from there headed into our final session of the day. We had a panel with returning Emissaries, Israel Fellows on Campuses. They shared their experiences with us and told us about the hardest things they faced when they were on college campuses in America. They gave us a lot of advice for next year that was quite helpful.

As it is Shavuot this weekend, one of the three Foot Festivals, we offered the students the chance to take part in an extravaganza. Twelve students will be having Shabbat and holiday meals together with Charlee and Rabbi Marc and host families. On Saturday night after a late meal and cheesecake, the group will take to the streets and roam the city on a synagogue hop, taking part in an all-night study program. Tens of thousands of Jews will be staying up until dawn to recreate the drama of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. We will be going to four different communities to listen to lectures and join discussions about Judaism and Israel and we will end around 4.30am at the Kotel for early morning prayers.

I wish everyone Shabbat Shalom and a Happy and Healthy Shavuot (Saturday Night and Sunday).

All the best,