Last spring, as I stood before 100 individuals to present at a high school Model United Nations conference, I glanced at the sea of placards in front of me: Indonesia, France, Algeria, Venezuela. We shared the same mission: to represent a nation and its values, putting our own beliefs aside, to discuss conflicts that plague our world today. After hearing others’ viewpoints, we wrote resolutions to address these pressing global issues. To be surrounded by teenagers, impassioned to create solutions to the world’s problems, was inspiring. I sensed that through this kind of ambition and willingness to compromise, issues from human rights abuses to climate change would fade away.
Shortly after the conference, however, COVID-19 infiltrated the US. I began my quarantine in a state of confusion and disappointment, trying to process the state of the world around me. Protests and riots broke out against COVID-19 restrictions, unemployment rates dramatically increased, and our mental health as a society took a toll. As I saw this frustration, stress, and disagreement on a global scale, the faith in diplomacy and hope for progress that I had built up throughout my Model UN experience started to fall apart.
As COVID-19 cases increased, colleges moved instruction online. I had been so mentally prepared to start my freshman year at college in the fall that when my brother told me to consider taking a gap year, I laughed. How could I delay what I had worked so hard to achieve and risk falling behind my peers? But as days and weeks went by, every thought circled back to this novel idea. After much contemplation, I made one of the scariest decisions of my life: I chose to defer starting my schooling at Harvard and take a gap year in Israel.
With the support of Masa Israel Journey, my gap year organizer, founded by the Jewish Agency and Government of Israel, I boarded a plane to Israel on an Aardvark Israel program. My experience was filled with excitement, even amid the pandemic restrictions, as I immersed myself in Israeli society and culture. I shopped for groceries in the shuk, explored this wondrously diverse country from the holy streets of Jerusalem to the cosmopolitan neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, marveled at Israel’s agricultural innovations, and celebrated Jewish holidays with Israelis.
In addition to this cultural and societal immersion, I was exposed to Israel’s unique political atmosphere. Living in another country reminded me that although nations face common issues, they all have different battles at home.
For Israel, one of these battles is the Arab-Israeli conflict. I had been contemplating the thorny questions of conflict and coexistence in the region until we visited Gush Etzion, where I encountered a peace-building organization called Roots, or Shorashim. I heard from two representatives—one Palestinian and one Israeli. They explained the importance of using dialogue as a means to promote mutual understanding and they discussed how they empower future generations by bringing together Israeli and Palestinian children. After enduring such a tumultuous year, seeing these two men shake hands after hearing each other’s stories gave me hope.
Model UN had been the last time I’d seen something like this. I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic as I saw opposing sides empathize with each other’s beliefs and listen to alternative approaches to solving such a contentious issue.
Although I had initially feared falling behind academically on my gap year, this was not the case at all. As I made my way across Israel, I saw current events issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict through my own eyes in the West Bank and I felt history come to life as I visited and learned about historically significant towns. And, as I reflected on these experiences, along with my time in Model UN I began to truly appreciate how listening and compromise are foundational to solving such large, disputative issues.
In addition to these experiences that deepened my understanding of history and current events, I was able to fully immerse myself in the realm of computer science by enrolling in Masa’s high-tech “Big Idea” track. I learned several coding languages first semester, and this semester, I am interning in software development at the Israeli tech startup Poloriz, which works to optimize websites on mobile devices through personalized UX and greater interactivity. Engaging in computer science has aided me in developing problem-solving, analytical, and critical thinking skills that I will carry with me to college.
Living alone in a foreign country has also enabled me to achieve a significant amount of personal growth. From buying my own groceries to doing my laundry to planning weekend trips, I have learned to thrive as an independent individual. Moreover, the culmination of the personal and professional growth that I have achieved this year will allow me to enter college with a greater sense of maturity and preparedness.
As spring blossoms in Israel and its vibrant and vaccinated society emerges from its COVID-19 cocoon, I am further buoyed. I look forward to spending my remaining months here exploring more of this beautiful country and starting school in the United States as a wiser and more independent person.