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Take a Gap Year to Israel Now? Convince me!

Illustrative. Israel Programs from Young Judaea. (courtesy, Young Judaea)
Young Judaea Year Course (courtesy of Young Judaea)

There are great reasons to consider taking a gap year to Israel right now. Consider these as you and your teen contemplate how to spend your time this coming Fall.

The “Zionism” argument

Being a Zionist right now in North America is hard. Whether you have been firmly committed in your Zionism or are looking to understand more about what it means to have a strong relationship with Israel, a gap year in Israel will take you out of your social media echo chambers and bring Israel IRL (into real life) from 2-D to 3-D, particularly through your encounters, mifgashim, with Israelis. Being a Zionist isn’t a spectator event and before one can become an activist of any political shade or color, spending a significant amount of time in Israel is not just advisable but crucial to being a part of the Zionist story. Nothing else even comes close to true solidarity than living as a local, and immersing oneself in Israeli culture, politics, and society. A gap year in Israel is an all-encompassing experience that engages all sense and mental faculties.

Historically, there were different types of Zionism, but today it seems that, at least in North America, Zionism has been painted with one broad brush stroke. But take a look at how Israelis are expressing their Zionism today, and you will see and how multivocal it is. On Young Judaea’s Year Course, you will experience two commitments to Zionism. One is big tent Zionism, which blends our commitment to pluralism and diversity with Zionism. We welcome different expressions of Zionism and create a community by learning through one another, and from our experiences in Israel. Each participant leaves the gap year having deepened their own personal connection to Israel.

The other approach is aspirational Zionism, the belief that together we can build tomorrow’s Israel.  Theodore Herzl once said, “If you will it, it is no dream” and I would say the inverse is true as well, “if you don’t will it, it will only be a dream”. While it is so much easier to disengage, Zionism calls us to roll up our sleeves and get involved in helping Israel become the place we want it to be. This aspirational Zionism is manifested by spending the year in Israel, studying, volunteering, connecting with Israelis, and making your voices heard.

The “deepen your Jewish pride” argument

Whether you are from a small rural town or a large urban city, these past few months, no one has been immune to the growing antisemitic sentiments. While this has led to a swell of Jewish pride for some, many more are hiding their visibly Jewish symbols concerned about the comments or actions that they may confront if they are discovered. If you are one of the only Jews in your town or your school, spending time in Israel will be a welcome change. You will discover the magic of being in a place where you are immersed in Jewish culture, religion, and Hebrew, and you aren’t constantly on the defensive.  If you are coming from a big city, meeting Jews on Year Course from across North America and Europe will certainly broaden your perspective about what life outside of the big city bubble can be like for Jews and what you take for granted on a daily basis. Further, being a part of Young Judaea’s Year Course, you will meet Jews with varied backgrounds and beliefs. You can comfortably carry on the traditions you grew up with or choose to try on new ones. Throughout the year you will gain ownership of your Jewish identity as an individual and as part of a collective community.   But most important, spending the year in this positive and joyful Jewish community, you will deepen your sense of Jewish pride carrying that into the rest of your life.

The “ready-set-defend – preparing for Israel on college campus” argument

When did it happen that 18-year-olds were expected to be expert ambassadors and defenders of Israel? A On a growing number of college campuses, the tone and tenor for Jewish students is increasingly becoming unwelcoming and hostile. You don’t even have to be vocalize your connection to Israel, just being Jewish puts students on the spot to engage on Israel related events. Even students who are deeply committed and have been active in social justice and progressive spaces, now find themselves uninvited and on the defense.  Spending a year immersed in a gap year program can give you the opportunity and exposure necessary to make your own, informed decisions before taking on the wider discourse. Young Judaea’s approach is not one of advocacy, hasbarah, rather we encourage the deep exploration of questions through critical inquiry and exposure to diverse perspectives. Being on a Young Judaea gap year, part of a community of diverse young adults, you will spend meaningful time learning how to engage with people who think differently than you do. You will also learn to ask deep questions and how to listen rather than simply spew factoids.  In addition, you will also spend time learning the history of how we got to this moment, and the ideologies that might inspire you to shape how we get to the next moment.

The “I am not ready for college yet” argument

The last few years have been really hard on teens. Between Covid quarantines, virtual high school, and a rapidly changing world, many teens are simply not ready for college. And there is NO SHAME in that. You are not alone. Participants of gap year programs say that a year abroad led to deep personal growth and transformation. From learning basic life and executive function skills like time management, to the responsibilities of living in a communal setting (laundry, cooking, cleaning). These are but a few areas of practical maturation that will lead to greater independence. In addition, participants will practice social skills necessary for living in community and spend time with inspirational mentors and teachers who will gently guide participants into deep personal reflection and growth. Parents and teens say that this one year of growth sets them up for college and life beyond high school in measurable ways.

The “make friends for life” argument             

The nature of an immersive gap year program is that you spend intensive time with a like-minded group of people building shared experiences and lifelong bonds. Alumni of our gap year programs tell us that their closest friends to date are those they met on Year Course. These friends become your trusted circle, the group of friends that gets you, that you can be vulnerable and real with. During this particularly challenging year, since October 7th, we have heard numerous stories of Year Course alumni turning to their Year Course community for support and safe and honest conversation. And that is so important, particularly now. Years later, we hear of Year Course friends staying connected, roommates in college or in a first apartment, networking for jobs, sharing important life cycles, and in some cases, Year Course couples who found their life partners on their gap year. We can’t promise that for everyone but friends for life – we all but guarantee!

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But back to our central question and naming the elephant in the room. You want me to commit to going on a gap year in the middle of a war? It is true that we are living through a historic moment in Israel’s history, with no clear path to what the future holds. Still, wouldn’t you rather be part of shaping history than observing from the sidelines? And what about safety and security? At Young Judaea we take this very seriously. We have been operating gap year and other Israel travel programs for over 70 years, through peaceful times and during wars. We are prepared to make the necessary adjustments to ensure the safety and security of our participants and the quality of the experience. Of course, this is a very personal and individual decision for each family, but hundreds of teens have made this decision before you. Just ask them, they are sure to add their own argument for why you should seriously consider a gap year to Israel this coming year.

So, what are you waiting for?

About the Author
Adina H. Frydman is the CEO of Young Judaea Global. Having spent 12 years at UJA-Federation of New York, first spearheading the synagogue department, SYNERGY and then as executive director of Community Resources, Adina focused on strengthening the NY Jewish community and its organizations through Talent Development, Synagogue and Day School Initiatives, Community Volunteerism, and Crisis Mobilization. In addition, she contributed to thought leadership in the area of synagogue change by producing leading research in areas such as Voluntary Dues, Data Driven Decision Making, Synagogue Engagement of Young Adults, Russian Speaking Jews, and Empty Nesters, as well as developing key attributes for a thriving synagogue. Before coming to New York in 2008, Adina was the Director of Focus Israel at the St. Louis Jewish Federation, where she worked to foster engagement between synagogues and Israel. In addition, Adina received a Bachelor of Music from Stetson University and Cantorial Investiture from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion. Adina founded the music program at the Brandeis Institute for Music and Art (BIMA), directed several choirs through HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir. Adina is the proud mother of four children.
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