IN January 2020, I went to Israel on a Bnei Akiva Hachshara gap year program called MTA, for Australian and South African students. The program is learning-based, with different options of learning institutions for girls and boys. I went to Midreshet Harova in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The first few weeks of our program were a blur of new people and places, getting used to our packed schedule and settling into routine – and little did we know they would be the last “normal” weeks of the year.
In March our program was disrupted by COVID-19, and we were suddenly faced with the option of either finding somewhere to stay in Israel during lockdown or going back home to Australia and South Africa. This was a stressful period of time, with so much uncertainty not only in the world around us but also in our immediate experiences. We weren’t sure if we were taking a temporary break from our programs or going home for good, but we were extremely lucky that our program was able to start up again in June 2020. Most of us who had gone home decided to come back to Israel to finish the year.
The rest of the year was spent navigating Israel’s various lockdowns and restrictions and we spent our time mainly within the walls of the Old City. For part of the year, a 500-metre rule meant we didn’t leave the Rova (Jewish Quarter) for 13 consecutive weeks, which was a truly unique experience.
Israel’s COVID restrictions also meant that we were divided into “capsules” for classes and meals, physically divided by floor-to-ceiling sheets of plastic in our classrooms and the dining hall. We made the most of it though, and had dinners with our friends beyond the plastic by pushing the tables together.
We spent the High Holy Days in the Old City, and there were many times when the Kotel plaza was empty except for us and other students from learning institutions in the Rova. I will never forget how surreal that felt. I am so grateful for the fact that we really got to know the Old City, and for the unique opportunity to tour the other quarters, finding pieces of Jewish history between staircases and over rooftops – including the front door of an old yeshivah.
When it wasn’t lockdown, we spent time on kibbutz in the north, hiked in the Negev and toured around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. After our program ended in February 2021, Ben Gurion Airport closed, blocking our return home. Instead, we worked on a farm in Gush Etzion for two weeks planting and packaging flowers and helping prepare greenhouses of baby blueberry trees. We were blessed to have such incredible experiences in Israel at a time when the world around us was full of change and uncertainty, and the deep friendships I made and the experiences I had are things I will keep with me forever.
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