“Are you crazy?” is what probably went through most people’s minds after telling them I’d be going to Israel on a gap year — in the middle of a pandemic.

I’m sure it seemed outlandish. Even one of my family members who is a physician in Israel advised me against coming, as he knew the cases of Covid-19 in Israel were rising. My parents, too, had their reservations.

Going to a foreign country alone for an entire year as a young adult is hard enough in a normal year. I would also be going with the expectations of not seeing any family or friends from home for an entire nine months due to travel restrictions and quarantine requirements.

Furthermore, knowing that Israel could go into lockdown at any time, my freedom would be limited.

Yet, I still decided to go. And so did 17,000 other young adults across the world. In fact, Aardvark Israel, my gap-year program arranged through Masa Israel Journey, this year has the largest number of participants ever.

Aardvark Israel participants at a lookout point on the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, after the coronavirus lockdown ended in October. Photo courtesy of Danya Belkin

After assessing the pandemic situation in the United States and how it was affecting the college experience, starting school this fall at Duke University was not ideal for me. A gap year became the clear choice in the hopes that next fall the pandemic would be under control and school would resume normally.

Three days of freedom

Living in Israel for an extended time has always been a dream of mine. Plus, Israel was one of few countries still offering gap-year programs.

It wouldn’t take much for me to have a good experience, considering I had been home in California for the last six months studying and working, but with limited alternatives due to the pandemic.

Just being in a new country, along with new people, culture, and a language to learn was enough for me to look forward to having the time of my life.

Danya Belkin, left, and other Aardvark Israel participants helping a farmer prepare for the olive season by clipping trees during Israel’s lockdown. Photo: courtesy

Coming to Israel in January and staying through May was my original plan, but after some serious self-reflection and with the support of my family, I decided to embark on my journey in August. My first four and a half months in Jerusalem and my second four and a half months in Tel Aviv.

This decision was made two weeks before the start of the gap-year program. It felt monumental making such an important decision in this short a window of time.

The little time I had left was spent packing my bags and saying my goodbyes to family and friends before arriving in Israel at the end of August.

After completing two weeks of quarantine, I had three days of freedom before Israel’s lockdown began. In those three days, I tried to see as much as possible of Jerusalem.

Life during lockdown

Aardvark Israel staff worked hard to ensure participants experienced meaningful activities during the lockdown.

Every Tuesday we would engage in a volunteering project. Aardvark Israel traveled outside of Jerusalem, visiting several farms and helping pick fruit and clear fields. We also packaged boxes for Magen David Adom.

Danya Belkin, left, and an Aardvark Israel colleague packing corona kits for Magen David Adom during Israel’s lockdown. Photo: courtesy

I was even able to spend time at Kibbutz Ketura where we picked argan nuts and learned about the production of argan oil and about kibbutz life.

My desire to indulge in my passion for writing and exploration encouraged me to apply to be an intern for ISRAEL21c.

In addition to volunteering during lockdown, I have been enrolled in classes covering topics like the Arab-Israeli conflict and current events. My Hebrew class is one of my favorites, as it gives me skills to use in my daily life here.

The location of my apartment couldn’t be more perfect, located right next to the Machane Yehuda Market (Shuk), where I frequently shop for food.

Danya Belkin is spending part of her gap year living next to Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. Photo by Ava Rosen

Considering the circumstances of the pandemic, my experience in Israel has been outstanding. I have been fortunate to see a different side of Israel than most teenage visitors get to see.

Growth and exploration

When speaking with my peers about why they chose to come to Israel during a pandemic, many have similar reasons, often relating to Covid-19.

Several friends of mine enlisted in this program last fall, before the coronavirus pandemic existed. Many, like myself, decided to come at the last minute after seeing the effects of the pandemic on college life.

Some of my friends are unsure of what they want to do next, and they chose to take this year for growth, exploration and expanding their horizons.

After being in Israel for two months now, I am very happy with my decision to live in this incredible country and share the experience with new and wonderful friends. I am excited to see what the future holds for me here.

As the lockdown is now gradually lifting, I look forward to engaging in more of what Israel has to offer and to use these experiences to help me understand Israel in a different light.