Lauren Cayle’s decision to postpone her first year of undergraduate education at American University was an easy one.
“The coronavirus,” she explained bluntly. “It hit, and I’m someone who learns much better in person — I’m a very visual learner — so being online was not going to be very good for me.”
Instead, Cayle — who is from Bayside and attends Congregation Sinai — elected to take a gap year in Israel, spending nine months there in 2020-2021 through the organization Aardvark Israel. In that time, she lived, studied and worked internships in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a constant presence.
“I had to quarantine for two weeks when I got there,” Cayle said. “My third day out of quarantine, we went into our first lockdown.”
Cayle’s year was split into two semesters, the first in Jerusalem and the second in Tel Aviv. The pandemic had an especially great effect on her first semester. Her classes, taken for credit that could be transferred to American University, were online; she was restricted to traveling fewer than 100, then 1,000 meters from her residence; she celebrated Rosh Hashanah with her roommates, instead of with her family in Israel as she had planned.
During that semester, Cayle interned with the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, an experience she described as enlightening, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.
“I was the head of social media there,” Cayle said. “I ran their Instagram, their TikTok, their Facebook, Snapchat, everything. I got to interact with all the soldiers — I made so many friends. They’re so inspiring.”
Restrictions were loosened just as Cayle’s first semester was ending.
“They took away the 1,000-meter restriction sometime around December or January, and then my time in Jerusalem was up,” she said.
In Tel Aviv, Cayle said, “things were looking a lot better. Not great, but better.”
Classes were in person, businesses were reopening and Cayle was able to “live like an Israeli.” Her social media internship with the Aloha Surf School Tel Aviv even gave her the chance to learn to surf.
But life in Tel Aviv was upended by an eruption of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in May 2021.
“I had to run back and forth into bomb shelters, there were rockets exploding over my apartment,” Cayle said. “It was terrifying and heartbreaking, because obviously people on both sides were being affected. They’re dying. They’re having psychological impacts.”
Cayle said the experience became part of everyday life in Tel Aviv.
“In between sirens, you just live your life,” Cayle said. “I went to the shuk, I went to the beach. I would go live my life, and if there was a siren, there were shelters all over.”
In the end, Cayle said the hostilities, while terrifying, were only a small portion of what she experienced in Israel.
“I was there for nine months. The operation doesn’t define my experience while I was there. Israel isn’t this scary place, as the media makes it sound; it’s our home, and I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to spend the last nine months there.”