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Getting To Know Israel

By: Camey VanSant

By Jess

Hi guys! My name is Jess and I’m from Santa Monica, California. I’m delighted to give you the rundown on the first month of my gap year in Israel.

I’d like to start by saying that much has changed since these photos were taken but a month ago. Families are fragmented, mourning the attacks and aftermath of October 7th and so much is still unknown. Now more than ever I hold these images close as a reminder of how uniquely special Israel is as I hope for better days ahead.

On September 11 I headed to Israel to participate in a 9-month long gap year program through a Jewish youth movement called Young Judaea Year Course. On the day of my arrival, it seemed that the local Israelis had come together with their flags and banners to greet me!! But, soon I learned that I just so happened to arrive in Jerusalem in the midst of an anti-government rally! Hundreds of people packed into my train to Jerusalem in protest of Israel Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to curb the powers of the high court. It was all very exhilarating-between the Israeli flags and chants for “democracy” ringing throughout the train station. From my very first moments, I was moved and inspired by the civic engagement before me, eager to learn more.

One of the perks of living in Jerusalem during September is celebrating the high holidays in the holy city! I enjoyed the exposure to different sects of Judaism at the various shuls (temples) in the surrounding area. If I had to pick, I’d say that my favorite festivity was breaking fast on Yom Kippur (day of atonement) at the Kotel (western wall). After 25 hours of fasting, no technology, and an hour-long walk from my campus to the Kotel, rejoicing with hundreds of Jews at the most religious Jewish site in the world was unforgettable.

Though we hadn’t actually begun any classes due to the high holidays, we were able to explore Jerusalem and the surrounding cities quite a bit during preparatory programming and free time. We visited many historical sights including Shiloh where we saw the ruins of the tabernacle, the water tunnels where I bested my claustrophobia in a 40-minute long dark and cramped tunnel below the old city and even the mystical city of Tzfat in the north of Israel where we learned about Kabbalah (a spiritual observation of Judaism). At home in Jerusalem, just two blocks away from campus, the Tayelet (path/promenade) was my favorite scenic spot to visit. Throughout the day, but especially at sunrise and sunset, I enjoyed the tranquility of the long path where my friends and I spent lots of time. Conveniently, the Tayelet doubled as the path that led me to my pottery studio!! Over the past few years, pottery has had a growing presence in my life and my main way of relieving stress. As you can probably imagine, I was overjoyed to find a studio just a 10 minute walk from my campus! I went pretty much whenever I had the chance which sometimes meant waking up with the sun in order to get in maybe an hour or so—worth it though:)

Outside of Jerusalem, I enjoyed spending free shabbats visiting friends and family in Tel Aviv. One thing I love about Tel Aviv is that the pace of life is much quicker than in Jerusalem. Fun fact, over shabbat and on high holidays, Jerusalem completely shuts down. This includes public transportation and grocery stores which don’t reopen until after the holiday has ended. In TLV, I especially enjoyed taking naps on the sand at Frishman beach, just like I would back home:) I’m looking forward to (hopefully) returning and living out some form of normalcy in my second semester in which my program lives in Tel Aviv.

After the war broke out, our program moved us to the lovely Kibbutz Ketura where I was able to volunteer on a date farm and also help organize clothing donations in the nearby city of Eilat. At Ketura, I had the joy of spending one final shabbat with my program before saying goodbye (for now) to my friends:( I am so grateful for the people I met, the things I learned living as a local in Israel and especially for DGYP for this tremendous and life changing opportunity.

For now, I am backpacking through Spain and planning on returning home for thanksgiving.

Categories: Jess