A gap year adventure in Israel

By Aliya Markowitz

Shalom, everybody! My name is Aliya Markowitz and I’m from Tucson, AZ. For the past three and a half months, I’ve been lucky enough to call the lively neighborhood of Nachlaot, Jerusalem, my home. Next semester, I will be continuing my adventure in the artsy district of Florentine, Tel Aviv.

Taking a gap year after high school was not something I had seriously considered doing. It felt as though my future had always been set to follow the paths most traveled; after high school comes college, followed by graduate school, and then into the workforce. It wasn’t until my senior year trip on the March of the Living, in which I went to Poland for a week and saw firsthand the atrocities committed against my people, I started to consider the idea of postponing my college experience. I realized that I owed it to myself and to my family that never left Treblinka to spend a year exploring the person I want to be in the homeland promised to my people.

Picking Aardvark Israel out of the numerous Israel gap year programs wasn’t difficult (and not just because the double ‘a’ name made it appear first on my Google search)! Aardvark’s internship opportunities, coupled with living in an apartment was exactly what I wanted – the perfect opportunity to gain independence and mature as a young adult.

My internship this semester is at Muslala, an urban rooftop garden workspace on Yafo Street. Muslala focuses on combining sustainable practices with nature and art. Often, my day consists of watering the multitude of plants on their rooftop terrace. While at first, I found this task tedious, I’ve come to appreciate this time as an opportunity to reflect internally on my fast-paced Jerusalem life. Once a week, I tend to my children (the compost worms) by visiting the Shuk to retrieve rotten fruits and vegetables to feed them. My internship gives me a chance to take my passion for environmental conservation and apply it in a practical manner.

Living in the heart of Jerusalem is everything I could have dreamed of and then some. Whether I’m visiting the Kotel, doing yoga in Gan Sacher, or grocery shopping in Machne Yehuda, I feel a sense of belonging. There is something magical about hearing everyone – both the secular and ultra-orthodox – say Shabbat Shalom each week. I feel safe, and I feel at home here in Jerusalem.

However, Jerusalem would not feel as comfortable without the incredible staff in this city. My counselor Rafi, or as I like to call him “Papa Raf,” is genuinely one of the kindest hearted people I’ve ever met. Natali, or as she once called herself “Britney B,” is not only a queen at dancing but a queen at coordinating the many interesting Tiyulim we have each Tuesday. And then there’s Charlee. When she’s not off finding incredible internships and volunteering opportunities, she is talking with the students and truly taking the time to find out who we are as people.

Being away from home can feel lonely, but seeing their faces in the office every morning makes Israel feel a little more like home.

When I’m not living life to the fullest in Jerusalem, I am traveling on Aardvark International trips. So far, I have been to Spain and China and I can honestly say that those have been some of the best weeks of my life. Whether it’s uncontrollably laughing during an interesting Chinese massage or appreciating the intricate details in Gaudi’s architecture of Casa Batillo, there is never a wasted moment on these trips. I am beyond grateful to have the opportunity to see so much of this incredible world during my year of self and worldly exploration.

In these four months, I have learned so much about my Jewish identity and myself. I have always connected to my Judaism on a more spiritual level, with my fundamental belief being that whether God exists or not, there is an energy that connects all life. While I still hold true to this belief, my time in Israel has exposed me to so many other forms of Judaism and ways of thought. My favorite part about Jerusalem is going to a different host family for Shabbos each week. From breathtaking views of the Kotel to endless rounds of Shabbos songs like, “Ain’t Gonna Work on Saturday,” each host has taught me something new about what it means to be a Jew. My conclusion is that there is no single correct way to be Jewish. What matters is that you believe in Tikkun Olam and are doing your part to help make this world a better place.

My time on Aardvark has taught me to slow down and appreciate the infinite details in the world around me. Whether you are a student, a parent (Hi Mom and Dad!), or a potential future “Vark,” I want to impart this small piece of wisdom that I think we can all take to heart. We are all only given one life, so don’t rush along the pre-established paths the rest of the world follows. Slow down and take time to explore and to find your own unique path. I don’t know where life will take me but this gap year is giving me the confidence and skills I need to accept all there is to come with an open mind and spirit for adventure.

Aliya Markowitz is a Tucson Hebrew Academy alumna participating in the Aardvark Israel Immersion Program. Aardvark Israel’s mission is to bring together a diverse group of students from all over the world for meaningful, life-changing experiences in Israel that strengthen their Jewish identity, deepen their commitment to Israel, and foster their personal growth.

Aardvark spotlights students each week on their website aardvarkisrael.com. This is Aliya’s story she shared when she was featured as “Student of the Week.”

Reprinted with permission from Aardvark Israel Immersion Programs.

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