Eighteen-year-old Aliya Markowitz had a goal: maintain a 4.0-grade point average through all four years at Catalina Foothills High School. She achieved this, while being active in BBYO, serving on the youth group’s Tucson and regional boards, and participating in the March of the Living two-week trip to Poland and Israel last year.
As a reward for her hard work, she plans to take this year as a gap year in Israel, deferring her acceptance to Lewis & Clark, a liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon.
“Israel feels more like home than any other place has,” Aliya, a Tucson Hebrew Academy graduate, told the AJP. “I went in eighth grade for the first time with THA and as soon as I got there, I just felt like this is where I was meant to be.”
Aliya’s parents, Ilana and Neil Markowitz, support her gap year plan. “She worked incredibly hard in high school,” says Ilana.
But there’s a catch: as an 8-year-old second-grader, Aliya was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammation of the digestive tract. Since age 10, she has been receiving treatments by infusion every six to seven weeks. The infusions keep her healthy, but the family’s insurance does not cover medication obtained outside the United States. Buying the medicine in Israel would be prohibitively expensive, so the family is looking for travelers to Israel to help hand-carry medication to her at various times between Nov. 6 and April 29, 2020.
Aliya would meet people at their hotel or the airport, says Ilana, who explains that the medicine comes pre-packaged, in a lightweight container about the size of a child’s lunchbox. She and Neil plan to visit Aliya in Israel — they’ll time their trip to cover one of the medication delivery windows.
Aliya recalls that before starting infusions, she tried various treatments; the worst was prednisone, “which I will do anything in my power to never have to be on again.” In addition to the prednisone, a steroid, making her puffy and endlessly hungry, she says, “I got really mean. It was hard for my parents because I was just grumpy all the time.”
While she’s on Aardvark Israel’s gap year program, which combines academics and internships, an Israeli concierge medical company will administer Aliya’s infusions. The company has three other gap year students who take Remicade, Aliya’s infusion medication, and they all get it hand-carried to Israel. But “all these other kids are from the New York metro area where there are a lot more folks traveling back and forth,” says Neil.
Parents “want our children to have as magical a childhood as possible,” says Ilana, so even though she and Neil have some anxiety about sending a child with a serious medical condition overseas, they want to make it work. Ilana, who has ulcerative colitis, a similar condition to Crohn’s, also receives infusion treatments. People of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage are at higher risk for both Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
Aliya’s gap year will include time in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. She’s taking Aardvark’s optional Selah Jewish Identity Track, which she explains “is about finding your own personal connection to Judaism, and having discussions about big-topic questions that there aren’t necessarily answers for.”
In Jerusalem, she’ll be a social media intern with Muslala, an urban rooftop garden program that combines sustainability with art exhibitions to bring the community together, helping to bridge political and ideological gaps. In Tel Aviv, she has the option to do a program with Magen David Adom, the Israeli ambulance service, where she’d be trained to be an EMT. “I do have an interest in medicine,” she says, adding that because of her own medical history, “I don’t get easily grossed out by blood or anything like that.”
Aliya thinks about someday fulfilling her name by making aliyah, moving to Israel, but she has promised her parents she’ll return after her gap year to take up her place at Lewis & Clark. “She got an incredible scholarship there,” notes Ilana. “That’s what the 4.0 was for,” adds Aliya.
Going to Israel on trips with her eighth-grade class or with her Jewish youth group, Aliya says, is very different from living there, which she’ll get a taste of on the Aardvark program. “I think everyone has many different paths that they can take in their life … that’s one that is clearly laid out for me, it’s just the more difficult one, and I don’t know if I’ll take it. But I think always in the back of my mind, I wonder if that’s where I’ll end up in future.”