Written by Yael Berezdivin for the Year Course 20-21 Graduation Ceremony
I grew up watching all my cousins go on Year Course. One by one they left for the land of milk and honey, and one by one they returned, speaking of “the best year of their lives,” and how they had learned so much about themselves, about their Jewish identity, and created their own special relationship with Israel. I didn’t really know what that meant at the time, but I anxiously awaited my turn, although it seemed like a lifetime away. Well, one uncle, an aunt, a father, seven cousins, and a sister later, my time finally came: it was time for Young Judaea Year Course 2020-2021 and I was signed up. That thing that seemed like a lifetime away, wasn’t so far anymore… one year, one month, a week, a day, and then BOOM I was put in an eight by ten room with three of my best friends for fourteen days straight, but it didn’t matter, I was in Israel, I was on Year Course. Mission Accomplished.
And what a mission it has been. Nine months packed with crazy adventures, friends, and non-stop laughter. I have been stuck in a sand storm (all because I wanted to pet a kangaroo), touched a sea cucumber (it was gross), had an incredible, seven-hour Passover seder, learned the entire super trouper dance from Mamma Mia, and even found out the Hila is my fourth cousin, crazy right? And that doesn’t even begin to cover it. All of those moments, as incredible and unforgettable as they were, are not what have made this year magical. A jar is not filled only by big rocks. To fill it, and I mean really fill it, you also have to pour in the pebbles, and then the sand, and then even a bit of water. It’s the little things, the inside jokes here and there, the tea times and the sunsets, the cooking and the having nothing to cook with, the late-night dance parties and the neighbors calling the cops on us within five seconds that give Year Course its magic. The little things help fill up the jar all the way to the top so that we can seal it up and take it home. A capsule full of the memories from the best year of our lives.
To feel a sense of belonging is also not this one moment where it all clicks into place, it’s all the moments. However, for me, there are four moments that stick out the most…
There was one time in Jerusalem when I decided to go on a walk before class. At the time I was reading a book set in Israel that followed two families through the creation of the state. They spoke about all the landmarks: the golden dome, the old city, the Jaffa port, kibbutzim, and Tel Aviv. And as I walked, I looked out onto the promenade, and as I breathed in that amazing view, full of all the places they mentioned in the book, only one thought crossed my mind, “Wow, I really live here.”
Months later, while walking the streets of Tel Aviv one night I ran into a man at the bus stop. I heard him speaking Spanish and he looked terribly confused so I approached him and asked if he needed any help. It turns out he had just made Aliyah from Argentina, it was his first day out of quarantine, and he was incredibly lost. So, I told him to download Moovit, explained how to use it, and gave him directions to where he wanted to go. Again, all I could think was, “Wow, I really live here!”
Now, a couple of days ago everyone at Beit Hillel had to run down to the bomb shelter as sirens went off all over Tel Aviv. We huddled together, most of us experiencing this for the first time, anxious and scared. One after another the sirens kept coming on as we heard the loud boom of the iron dome fighting to protect us. While sitting in that shelter, texting my friends to make sure they were ok, sharing my experience to educate others, and watching videos of rockets flying overhead one thought crossed my mind, “Wow, I really live here.” But it wasn’t a sad or resigned remark, it was one full of pride and passion. This year has embedded in me a paramount responsibility to advocate for Israel, and these past few days have only made that fire burn brighter.
And lastly, on Sunday night, I walked with stars beneath my feet and above my head. In the middle of the desert, on the Milky Way path, I let all my time here wash over me and I felt a sense of calm in knowing it is ok to be sad that Year Course is ending, but having a deep knowledge that it would never be over. Our friends are just like the stars: we cannot always see them, but they are always there.
Now think back to your capsule of memory. I’m sure they all look different, each individual experience adding its own personal flair, but before you seal the lid, I want to give you some more things to remember…
Remember that we are a family. Year Course ends, but our friendship never does. Wherever life may take us, through the ups and downs we are sure to encounter, we will always have each other. We have been through quarantines, lockdowns, corona scares, an open country, rockets flying overhead, and an impromptu trip to the desert, and we have done it together, as a family. In your jar, there are a million memories attached to 200 names that make up this amazing program.
About a year ago, each of us sat in front of a computer waiting for our Year Course interview. They asked us what we hoped to gain from the program, and most of us said we wanted to find ourselves, not really knowing what that meant. Well, I found myself in the beautiful beaches of Tel Aviv and the spiritual energy of Jerusalem. I found little pieces of me in every hike, every Siyur. On lazy days and crazy days, hidden behind intense laughter and eye-opening conversations, through new friendships and old ones. Every time I ate way too much Anitas or missed the bus, slept through my alarm, or ran into my friends on the street I learned even more about myself.
I may still not know exactly who I am or what my purpose is in life but I can guarantee that this year has definitely led me closer to finding out. Plus, some things it has taught me for certain are that wherever I go in the world, I have a friend to call. I know that I am capable of living independently (kind of), of finding my way in a foreign country, that I can throw an amazing party, organize a Maccabiah, and that I love Israel.
But the greatest thing I learned on Year Course is how to turn strangers into family.