The gap-year that many Jewish students take in Israel the year before they go to college is unlike any experience they will have in their lives. It is a year full of meeting new friends, building connections with teachers, and traveling from the Golan to Eilat. Most importantly, it is a year of self exploration and growth in the epicenter of Jewish life. Jewish students from across the globe congregate on Ben Yehuda Street on Friday afternoons, meet their new found friends’ friends and traipse around with their knapsacks full of Shabbat clothes and a box of Marzipan rugelach for their hosts. American teenagers hike Masada, sing Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel, and dance in the streets on Yom Yerushalayim like they have never danced before. Hundreds of Jewish eighteen year olds come to yeshivas and seminaries and other gap year programs to learn Torah, to learn to love Israel, and to solidify their Jewish identities. Simply put, the gap year is magic, and as I write this article, I have tears in my eyes, knowing that this year’s group of students will not have the magic like I did.
Today, Ezra Schwartz, an 18 year old studying at a yeshiva in Beit Shemesh was murdered in cold blood. He was returning to yeshiva after distributing food to soldiers who were on patrol in the Gush Etzion area. He was only guilty of standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ezra was not a “settler”. He was an American citizen from Sharon, MA who was studying in a country that is America’s ally, and in a place where every citizen should have the right to feel safe when he/she walks down the street. The terrorist who shot him today did not care about who Ezra was, why he was there, or where he came from, he just wanted to have Jewish blood on his hands.
Being young comes with the feeling of being invincible, regardless of the surroundings. I know I felt invincible during my gap year in Israel. I was a student at a seminary in the Old City during 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense. This entailed a few lockdowns, running to shelters, and some teary calls home. But never once did I think I would be harmed by one of the rockets launched at us from Gaza. Maybe it was because I am American, and somehow these things skip over us, or because I was young, I am not really sure. The invincible feeling was a positive thing, since it did not stop me from taking the bus to the warm beaches in Ashdod, visiting my relatives in Efrat for Shabbat, or even davening at the Kotel (at which I ran to a shelter on a Friday night because there was a siren). But this is different, one of us was killed. One of the hundreds of American gap year students at a program just like the all the others was murdered by a sorry excuse of a freedom fighter. This hits home because he could have been my roommate, my chavruta, my cousin in another seminary, my boyfriend, or even, me.
To the gap year students who are in Israel now, please do not let this stop you from living. Honor Ezra’s memory by finishing a Masechet in his name, doing Bikur Cholim at Shaare Tzedek, helping a needy family that lives near your yeshiva, or with any other acts of chessed and Torah learning. Don’t let this stop you from going on spontaneous adventures with your friends, making a late night run to Aldo, spending Shabbat at hippie places like Moshav Modiin, and just experiencing the best year of your life. I am sorry that you know what it feels like to lose someone, to be vulnerable, and scared; That is unfortunately sometimes part of living in Israel. But you have to do your best to push forward. This year only happens once, so please, keep the magic alive, and live.