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Mind the gap: youngsters adjust to Israel at war



How strange it is to feel safe on the streets of a country at war! How uncomfortable it is to feel ashamed of our government while in Israel!

These are the sentiments of South African matriculants who have recently embarked on a gap-year programme in Israel.

Before leaving home, these individuals envisaged going to a country at war to be something quite different. Benni Dorfman, on Bnei Akiva’s Limmud programme, says, “I thought people would be running to bomb shelters constantly. But I was reassured by many Israelis that life was relatively normal and safe even with the war, so I felt I had nothing to worry about.”

Sara Ress, on Bnei Akiva’s MTA programme, says, “I assumed there would be a sombre energy, with many restrictions and broken individuals and families. And it’s true that there’s a sentiment of sorrow and longing for the safe return of the hostages. However, there exists a remarkable resilience among Israelis. I’ve witnessed an unwavering spirit of unity and hope.”

Since arriving in Israel, the matriculants have had some unexpected experiences. Alannah Laden, attending Habonim’s Shnat programme, says, “Life is different to life in South Africa – public transport is safe here and you can walk in the street on your own. In South Africa, you can’t really do either of those.”

Says Dorfman, “Something that did surprise me was how many feral cats there are in Israel. It’s weird to see a house pet basically be the rat of Israel.”

Rafi Midzuk, attending Bnei Akiva’s MTA programme, says, “Normally, the yeshiva has pupils from first up to seventh year. But the majority of people above second year are all in the army. The yeshiva is half the size it normally is. So, there hasn’t been someone older who can teach you or give guidance.”

Since the war broke out, there have been high levels of anti-Israel rhetoric from the South African government. The International Court of Justice proceedings by South Africa against Israel, which caught international attention, is one example. These proceedings have been at the forefront of many Jewish South Africans’ minds.

Says Midzuk, “It’s frustrating to see everything that’s going on because on the one hand, South Africa is my home, and on the other, South Africa is attacking the country I love.” Another matriculant says, “The anti-Israel rhetoric in South Africa has been really painful to see. It has definitely made me see my country in a worse light, and made me question if I want to be in the country in the future.”

In spite of the disparity between heart and home, these gap-year students have still had an incredible time in Israel. “So far, I’d say that the highlight of my programme has been simply being in Israel and being exposed to the culture here,” says Alannah Laden. Says Midzuk, “My first Shabbos in Israel has been the highlight. The entire yeshiva singing Kabbalat Shabbat, tisch [gathering] during supper, and a final informal tisch on the stairs to the balcony. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced.”

Says Ress, “The opportunity to immerse myself in a culture rich with Jewish history and spirituality has been transformative. Connecting with fellow gap-year students who share my passion for personal and Torah growth has been incredibly rewarding.”

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