The coronavirus pandemic led Nicolet High School graduate Sophie Packman to think about what she really wanted out of her college experience.
“As things just kept getting worse, I started to question more and more what my freshman year would look like in a world like this,” Packman said. “And whether I wanted to spend so much money doing Zoom class from my dorm room.”
Packman had already committed to Emory University in Atlanta for the fall of 2020, but she decided to investigate other ways to spend that academic year. After a friend told her about the Young Judea Year Course gap year program in Israel, Packman applied and was accepted. In Israel, despite the challenges posed by a continued pandemic and violence between Israel and Hamas, Packman found a community and grew as a self-sufficient individual, she said.
The Young Judea Year Course program is split into two semesters in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Packman began her year in Jerusalem, where she took classes for college credit that could be transferred to Emory, where she will start as a freshman in the fall of 2021.
“There were a lot of lockdowns while we were in Jerusalem,” Packman said. “And we actually weren’t allowed to take public transportation while we were living there for COVID purposes.”
But Packman said her time in Jerusalem was meaningful, nonetheless.
“I definitely would not change anything about my experience,” she said. “I loved getting to know everybody because we were all stuck on the campus, and it really made us a very close community.”
In Tel Aviv for the second semester of the program, Packman worked an internship at a traditional Swedish bakery called Fika for four days a week. She said she wanted to work at a bakery because she baked frequently during the pandemic.
The job pushed her to be more independent and gave her window into Swedish culture.
“I learned how to live on my own in a different country across the world from my family and anything that I had been used to,” Packman said. “I worked in a foreign bakery, and I cooked for myself –– I did all kinds of things that were new to me.”
In May, Packman said she was out for dinner with her friends when they received texts from their program leader that instructed them to return to their residences. The message said escalation was possible in the new round of hostilities between Hamas and Israel.
“Not even a minute after we received that text, all the sirens went off, and everybody in the restaurant rushed to the back,” Packman said. “We just kind of followed and did the same thing that all the Israelis were doing.”
Soon after, Packman’s group traveled to the southern town of Mitzpe Ramon, which was considered safer than Tel Aviv. They stayed there for almost a week before flying home.
Packman said that though her experience of the hostilities was more intense than what she could have anticipated, it was only a small part of a year in which she grew greatly as a person. In fact, she credits it for helping to make her stronger.
“Even though I was so scared while everything was happening … looking back on it, I can see how much it built me as an individual,” Packman said.