As part of my gap year in Israel, this spring I spent three months in Kiryat Gat, part of JUF's Partnership Together region and a city in southern Israel. It's not a spot most American tourists visit--there are no giant King Herod fortresses or seas filled with salt here--and yet, I've found myself drawn to this special place.
I'd been to Kiryat Gat twice before: first in 2016, as a participant in JUF's Israel Now 8th grade trip (then called Ta'am Yisrael), and then on the Diller Israel trip two years later, when I spent three incredible weeks with my counterparts from Kiryat Gat. And I couldn't wait to come back.
For the first six months of my gap year, I participated in Kol Ami, a program where I was among 30 Israeli and international participants who learned, volunteered, and traveled together (when the pandemic allowed). I had an amazing experience, made friends for life, and knew that I couldn't leave Israel right, away after those months I'd spent learning and exploring all kinds of topics related to Judaism and Israel. I wanted to experience daily life in Israel firsthand and give something back to the country.
JUF's Partnership Together office found a family to host me in Kiryat Gat and a place where I could volunteer every day: Neve Hanna. This youth village provides a supportive home for disadvantaged children, ages four to eighteen, who are divided into "families" that eat, sleep, and play together. My job was to serve as an older sister figure for one family.
From this experience, I gained three main things. For one, I developed deep connections with the kids and staff. I was amazed by the fact that the children constantly smiled, laughed and played despite their challenging circumstances. Even during the most recent conflict with Hamas, the kids simply incorporated the sirens into their imaginary games, as a way of processing and coping with the situation. They were also eager to learn English and hear about life in Chicago. I made friends with Israeli volunteers my age in their year of national service. Together, we had fun helping the children during our volunteer hours and going out to the Kiryat Gat market or the delicious Golda ice cream store during our time off.
I also gained a deeper understanding of life in Israel from my amazing host family. They took me on hikes to the Beit Guvrin Caves, showed me how to use public transportation so I could feel like a local, and made me delicious schnitzel. They were enthusiastic about explaining the Israeli elections and welcomed all my questions about what it is like to live in Israel.
Finally, I had the unique opportunity to speak Hebrew. Though I made mistakes, everyone I met was very patient and helped me improve. My Spotify playlists are now full of Israeli songs and podcasts.
I also occasionally volunteered at an elementary school in Kiryat Gat teaching English and at an organization called SAHI, which receives funding from JUF and is dedicated to empowering at-risk teens to help their neighbors facing food insecurity. Volunteering wasn't always easy and I sometimes struggled to understand cultural differences, but those challenges helped me grow as a person.
The partnership between Kiryat Gat and JUF is so special, and I really believe that whoever gets the chance to be a part of it will really enjoy it. I know that this small corner of the world is a place I am going to return to whenever I come to Israel, and I can't wait to see what my fourth time in Kiryat Gat will bring.
Gillian Rosenberg graduated from Chicago Jewish Day School in 2016 and from Evanston Township High School in 2020. In the fall, she will be a freshman at Princeton University.