Israel study, the Aardvark way
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Israel study, the Aardvark way

Pluralistic 'gap year' program offers teens a unique perspective

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From left, Raquel Ofir, Arielle Engelmayer, and Amit Fadida. Courtesy Aardvark Israel

JERUSALEM ““ Arielle Engelmayer wanted to spend her “gap year” in Israel, but not in a yeshivah setting. “I didn’t want to go to a seminary, because it’s too much like high school,” says the former Ramaz Upper School teenager and soon-to-be Teaneck resident (her family is moving to Teaneck from Manhattan before she returns from Israel).

So Arielle chose Aardvark Israel, a pluralistic nine-month program now completing its second year. The program is affiliated with American Jewish University in Los Angeles. It “offers college credits and I get to go on trips,” says Engelmayer, who opted for add-on travels to Kenya, China, and Italy.

Eighty Aardvark participants are divided into two groups, each spending half the program based in the South Tel Aviv neighborhood of Florentine, and the other half of the time in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Katamon. Engelmayer is now in the Tel Aviv half of her stay.

“We have volunteering followed by classes [essentially, chesed projects] and once-a-week trips [within Israel]. It’s not entirely like a year off because I’m getting college credit, but at the same time I’m free to roam around Israel. The counselors are all Israeli and know a lot about everything.”

While in Jerusalem, Engelmayer volunteered at a childcare center. In Tel Aviv, she is working in a soup kitchen.

Although she and her five roommates have the only kosher apartment in their group, she adds, “We’re a really tight group and everyone’s friends. This is a really chill program with a lot of different people.”

Aardvark Israel was founded as a vehicle to maximize the number of young Jews coming to Israel for meaningful, life-changing experiences that strengthen their Jewish identity and commitment to Israel, says its director, Keith Berman.

“I was the Young Judaea Year Course program director for 11 years, and a bunch of us wanted to create a program that is more relevant for today’s youth, which is why we put it in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, rather than on kibbutzim and moshavim. We have a pluralist program, [ranging] from secular to Orthodox. Everyone does a mix of educational, experiential, and volunteering. We have a full academic program of Jewish- and Zionist-oriented classes, but also things like psychology, business, and political science into which we introduce relevant Israeli topics.”

Aardvark Israel also offers a semester program for college students, and next fall will launch the Steinsaltz-Aardvark Year Program, a Jewish learning program for Orthodox students inspired by the educational approach of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Even-Israel).

Berman says this year’s students come mostly from North America, but also from such countries as South Africa and England. “We’re popular in New Jersey, Toronto, and Los Angeles, in particular,” he says.

The Aardvark trips to foreign lands are not just geared to tourist spots, but aim to acquaint the students with the Jewish history of the place and its current relationship with Israel.

“For example, little tiny Israel is helping huge China in many ways, including dairy farming and agriculture, and that’s so impressive to see,” says Berman. “We went to visit a Chabad house and a Reconstructionist community in Beijing, so we could meet local Jews.”

In an e-mail to friends and family written from China, Engelmayer explained that it is illegal to build a synagogue in that communist country. “So in order to get around this, you have to pretend to be something else, as well. The Chabad House doubles as a restaurant and a museum, and the Reconstructionist shul we went to Friday night was also a country club.”

The synagogue, she reported, “was a nice environment mixed with Americans, Europeans, and Chinese, but I had a hard time enjoying since the food was only ‘kosher style,’ so I couldn’t even eat there.” She gave the guest sermon.

In Kenya, the group visited a hospital, a center for disabled children and a computer center equipped by the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s MASHAV international aid agency. They also met the Israeli ambassador.

“We’re a Zionist program,” Berman says, “so we talk to the kids about the possibility of not going back. Several of this year’s students are going into the [Israeli] army, and several others are going to study at IDC-Herzliya.”

“I definitely appreciate Israel more than I ever did, though I’m not ready to move here, as some of my roommates will,” says Engelmayer. She, like the majority of Aardvark participants, plans to return home for college. In her case, at least, Israel advocacy will be high on the agenda. Her father is a public relations practitioner many of whose clients are involved in promoting Israel, and who has written pro-Israel columns for various publications. Her grandfather is a local rabbi in New Jersey who has advocated for Israel in numerous columns, sermons, and speeches.

“We see our kids as advocates for Israel when they go back, because they’ve experienced Israel with their own eyes and are more confident to stand up and present Israel’s case on campus,” says Berman. “If you’re not going to live in Israel, putting your life on the line defending the state, then you’ll have to put yourself in some situations that are not comfortable to defend the state. It’s your responsibility.”

And why is the program called “Aardvark?”

Berman laughs. “This is the age of unusual names. We wanted to call it something that would be memorable to help us get the word out. And the two As put us at the top of every list.”

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