As the range of programs on offer for youngsters wishing to get a feel for life
in Israel continues to expand, the four-year-old Aardvark Israel Study and
Volunteer Program is positioning itself as "the melting pot" experience for
Aardvark offers youth between the ages of 17 and 21 the
opportunity to study, work, eat and sleep in Israel's two biggest cities,
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, in the company of fellow Jews from different walks of
life. The staff of the four-year-old organization tells The Jerusalem Post that
this program further provides students with the chance to learn about their
Jewish identity, to immerse themselves in Israeli culture, and to contribute to
the land of Israel.
Aardvark gets its name from the
African mammal that must burrow deep into the earth to survive. Aardvark's staff
hopes the students learn to do the same: to search deep within themselves to
learn more about the world around them.
Liron Milbar, Aardvark's
marketing and sales coordinator, distinguishes this program from others by what
she describes as the melting pot nature of the program: "On other programs it's
often the same types of communities coming together. We pride ourselves on
giving kids the opportunity to meet Jews from all over the world. No matter what
nationality or race, we welcome them onto our program. We've had people from
Panama, Mexico, Costa Rica, US, Canada, UK, Hungary, Holland, Germany, France,
Belgium, China, Philippines, South Africa, etc."
Keith Berman, Aardvark's
co-founder and director, echoes Milbar's sentiments: "I grew up just being
around Ashkenazi conservative and reform Jews, like most Americans do. And I
came to Israel where you have all these people who are Jewish and have different
customs and skin colors, and it opened up the whole meaning of what it really is
to be Jewish. Here in Aardvark, having Jews from all over the world just adds a
really nice aspect for us when we talk about identity and what it really means
to be Jewish."
In addition, Aardvark prides itself on offering exciting options
for its participants. The program offers "add-ons", or enrichment programs that
occur throughout the semester. "They're just a way for the students that want to
do a little extra with a specific focus, to do that. We have the SeaQuest
add-on, in which the students do water sports. There's also the Mind and Body
Connection add-on where they volunteer with Magen David Adom, providing them
with another way to give back to Israel," says Milbar.
offers students a two-month long opportunity to immerse themselves in the
Israeli army. Berman says "It's a simulated basic training in the army… And if
any of the students do decide in the future to come back to Israel and want to
actually serve in the army, the army will take two months off their service
because of having completed the program."
Berman's favorite add-on is the twice
weekly, Tel Aviv-based entrepreneurship track. "It's quite well-known about all
of the start-up companies and innovations that are coming out of Israel,
particularly in Tel Aviv. Usually once a week the students will meet someone who
started a company, and then the other day they will have some sort of workshop
on how to be a better public speaker, how to write a budget, how to make a
marketing plan, etc."
Aardvark also offers different tracks to its participants.
Aside from the basic, semester-long or gap year program, students can also take
part in the international track, or the Selah track. The international track
offers students the chance to travel abroad to eight different countries during
their time abroad to learn about Jews and Jewish history outside of Israel. The
Selah track allows the students to interact with educators with the goal of
building a transformative relationship with the Torah. The program is targeted
towards students seeking a deeper approach to the study of Judaism in
A Cheaper Alternative
Despite its recent creation, Aardvark has
already established itself as one of the cheaper options for those wishing to
participate in either a semester-long or gap year program. "The reality is that
we're working on a model of how much things actually cost. We're not part of
some huge organization where people are paying tuition to things that aren't
just the program that they're on. When they come here, the money is all going to
the program," says Berman.
He also notes that Aardvark is cheaper despite
its location in the two most expensive cities in Israel. "So if you're asking
why there's a huge jump in price with some of the other programs, you have to
ask them. It's not why we're charging so little, it's why are they charging so
much. We're charging a fair price."
New Beginnings, New Opportunities
chose to create Aardvark following twenty-one years at Young Judaea. Despite
much criticism surrounding his resignation and the development of Aardvark,
Berman says it was simply time for something new: "At some point, I realized
that I could do it better if I went out on my own, so I wanted to try it
Berman's departure came after a year of tumult for his former
company. At the time, The Jerusalem Post reported that Young Judaea had lost its
funding from Hadassah Woman's Organization and its two Jerusalem properties were
"It's no secret that they're having a lot of problems. I'm still a
Hadassah member," says Berman. "But I was not pleased, I would say even
disgusted, with what was going on internally, and I had to get out. I didn't
think what was going on was good, so I left."
By creating Aardvark, Berman added
yet another program to the multitude of options available to Jewish students
wishing to spend time in Israel, and that was exactly his goal. "I'm happy I had
a chance to create another program that's different. Aardvark is a different
kind of year course. The whole point of Masa was to create many more options; it
wasn't to offer the same five things over and over. It was to offer things that
could speak to many different kinds of kids."
Only the Beginning
"Out of the
first few years we've had about 22 out of the 150 students choose to stay and
make aliyah," says Berman. "The two main things they choose to do are either to
do the army or go to the IDC in Herziliyah." Aardvark is only in its fourth
year, yet the staff is already proud of its success in not only getting students
to join the program, but in seeing those kids choose to stay in
"We definitely are a Zionist program," the Aardvark director