Although Aardvark might seem like a peculiar name, it is the name of my Israel gap year program. Aardvark includes coursework, internships and travel throughout Israel with other high school graduates from around the world – Europe, Australia, Africa and the U.S.
Living in Israel following my high school graduation has strengthened my commitment to both the nation and my Jewish identity as I have been immersed in Israeli life, culture, history and education. Every day, I face the new and exciting challenges that come from living in a foreign country.
Initially, I did not know how to communicate or, often, as I walked or took the bus, even where I was. But I appreciate being independent and having the freedom to do what I think is most beneficial while living on my own far from home.
This means balancing classes, internships, cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, my budget and structured Aardvark activities. The support of Aardvark’s amazing staff and new friends helped me grow as a student, roommate, person and citizen.
My first semester in Tel Aviv was frantic and exciting. I lived in a modern apartment with five other Aardvark students. Our Tel Aviv neighborhood, Florentine, is a beach community covered in beautiful graffiti and within walking distance of anything you could imagine, including the sprawling Tel Aviv Promenade on the Mediterranean seashore and an enormous outdoor market.
My internship at a music start-up company, 2Gether, allowed me to focus on my music and technology passions. There, I developed personalized music playlists from around the world, representing a broad spectrum of time periods, genres and cultures, and I produced music.
My coursework included Hebrew, psychology and the history of Zionism. I joined an Aardvark extracurricular program, Sea Sports, for surfing, paddle boarding and even indoor skydiving in winter.
Our group met with Ethiopian Israelis, hosted a diverse group of speakers to discuss conflict resolution and bridging differences, and hiked and camped around Israel.
This past semester in Jerusalem was equally influential, but I felt much more knowledgeable and relaxed. I interned at the Understage recording studio, lived in an apartment with three Aardvark friends, and studied Hebrew, Jewish philosophy and modern Zionism.
I also embarked on two optional Aardvark trips outside of Israel. An Israeli non-governmental organization, Tevel b’Tzedek, led a group of Aardvark participants through Nepal for two weeks of learning about tikkun olam, globalization, poverty, social justice, human rights and Israel’s roles in facilitating cross-cultural understanding. The experience included a village homestay, where I farmed, cooked and helped with construction.
On Aardvark’s trip to Italy, my friends and I explored Venice, Rome, Tuscany and Florence as we learned about Italy’s Jewish history, communities and narrative.
This gap year has been the best year of my life. I am thankful for Aardvark’s weekly trips, or “tiyuls,” to explore many parts of the country; the extraordinary staff members; and the lifelong friends I have made.
I am grateful to the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode island, Rabbi Sarah Mack and Temple Beth-El for their support.
My decision to live in Israel this year has led to much more than I expected. I hope that parents support their high school graduates in taking a gap year in Israel.
My fresh and expanded perspective makes me more prepared to enter Skidmore College this fall. And I now hope to be more of a bridge and ambassador to other cultures.
ETAI TAYLOR BALLY is from Providence and Barrington and attended Temple Beth-El and Temple Habonim.