A letter from Israel

May 5, 2020 by  
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My name is Ashleigh Harris and this is my first semester on the Aardvark Israel gap year program.  I am 18 years old from Melbourne.

Ashleigh Harris

I always knew I was going to take a gap year.  It was something my parents and I wholeheartedly supported. I needed a break after the countless hours of study and many pressures from high school and, for me, travelling around the world with (with no homework) seemed like the best way to destress and uncover the real me.

In year 12 I received a Masa Israel Journey gap year information booklet in the mail.  To be completely honest I wasn’t originally interested in a gap year to Israel as I had already been twice before and my rationale was that I could use this opportunity to explore other parts of the world. Nevertheless, my parents insisted on going to the ZFA’s Israel gap year information session. I am so glad they did because that is where we heard about Aardvark Israel. My parents were captivated by the independence of the program and the fact that it was a global program with participants from around the world. I too was sold, not only by the chance to cook my own food every day and live independently but to spend time in Israel and travel the world. The program provided extended options to travel around Italy and Germany and volunteer in Nepal within an organised program. It also gave me the opportunity to add on working in an American Summer Camp and I could continue travelling by myself, or with newly formed friends, at the end of the program. Aardvark sounded like the perfect program for me.

Now, three months in, I have been to Tzfat, Ashdod and the Negev.  I have explored most of the side streets in Tel Aviv, I can rank the grocery shops from most expensive to cheapest, and I have perfected roasting cashews in the oven. However, one of the things I was excited to do this year,  travelling the world, I have unfortunately not been able to do (thank you Covid-19).

So why am I still here? Why didn’t I go home? I can’t go to the Vatican in Italy or learn about Jewish history in Berlin, and I am unable to help build schools and educate children in Nepal.  I started off not wanting to spend my whole gap year in Israel, but as time goes on, it looks like Israel will become my home for the next six months, at least!

From the beginning of the Corona pandemic, I have been determined to remain in Israel until the very end. For me, while I originally wanted to travel and see the world, and still do, I came on this gap year determined to understand and discover who I am without the foundations of my school, friends and family. My whole personality up until this point has been shaped by these three factors and removing them entirely has forced me to step outside of my comfort zone and learn more about myself than ever before.  As a result, my confidence within myself and my place in the world is growing each day. My cooking skills are a LOT better than they were and I love to make scrumptious dishes.  Moreover, I have made and continue to make new friends each day, friends I am sure I will still have in 20 years time.

I feel spending the rest of the year in a foreign country, where I am still learning the language (through the fantastic online ulpan classes), surrounded by a bunch of diverse and amazing teenagers and confined to a 100-meter radius is the best way to further challenge myself.

As Etai (my Community Manager) says; “It is only when we step outside of our comfort zone that the ‘magic happens.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. If we are given everything necessary to survive then what is the point of living? How are we able to understand who we truly are if we are not given the opportunity to care for ourselves?  Yes, being in a foreign country does bring a new, let’s say, more abrupt culture, than what I am used to, but I will learn to become more assertive in my actions. Further, I have always wanted to learn Hebrew and now I have the chance to become even better at it and can speak the language in the country it is spoken in. Most importantly, I have also made friends from all over the world. I now have places to stay in Argentina, Belgium, America, Italy, Canada and the list goes on.

Finally, I am getting very good at speed walking around the three blocks near my apartment and finding fun, new exercises to do indoors. I have also planned 101 things to do with bolognese sauce and I am DEFINITELY NOT leaving until I have cooked at least 98 of the recipes. I know the times ahead will be filled with new learning experiences and opportunities.

I want to thank all of the Aardvark Staff for everything they have done the last couple of weeks. All their energy is going into ensuring we have the best experience possible in these circumstances and I will be forever grateful for their unwavering support and dedication to the program and the students.

As I continue my journey through these uncertain times, I am confident in my decision to stay and know that whatever the future holds will bring challenges, but with it, new skills and gratitude for the wonderful world we live in, this incredible country I get to call home for the year and the amazing family that I have.

Aardvark is a MASA approved program which brings together a diverse group of students from all over the world for meaningful, life-changing experiences that strengthen their Jewish identity, deepen their commitment to Israel, and foster their personal growth.

The Zionist Federation of Australia is the local representative for MASA. For more information on this and other programs call the Israel Programs office on 9272 5584.


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