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 students.

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.

Something Different

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.

Another add-on 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 Israel.

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

Berman 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 differently."

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 sold.

"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 Israel.

"We definitely are a Zionist program," the Aardvark director stresses.

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