This article is specifically focused on the Midrasha/Yeshiva track.
We all know that before a butterfly becomes a butterfly, it starts as a caterpillar and forms into a cocoon, whilst then the butterfly emerges with its wings, flying independently as itself, having transformed. This is the analogy I have always given, since reflecting on my gap year in Israel, and this is an experience which I truly believe is one of clear transformation, with life-changing benefits and is of extreme importance.
As Avraham was once told to leave his native land, to go to the land God would show him, your gap year is the very same; you experience your own Lech Lecha. For me, it was a Lech Lecha where I was shown that land and was able to “seek God where He is to be found and call upon Him when He is near” (Isaiah 55:6). A Lech Lecha which echoed to me, “return, my children, return” (Chagigah 15a), as I returned to a special place, and where I was to ground myself in values that presented me with many truths about myself. A Lech Lecha where I was presented with opportunities that I did not get before.
Just how we want to buy a good pair of shoes and the best computer, we too want the same with our lives, and every decision we make for ourselves. This couldn’t be more appropriate when looking at a gap year in Israel. Not only should one choose an institution to attend that best suits them, but as soon as one reaches Ben Gurion Airport, it is important to acknowledge time and space. To British people, it might seem at the beginning to be like Bnei Akiva camp with full-time learning, or to Americans, it might seem like everyone you know from Bergen County or The Five Towns on just a regular program in Israel together. It is ever so true that before going on a gap year, one does not think about what they are about to be presented with and the levels it will take them to. One doesn’t realize there is so much growth ahead of them, and so much opportunity ahead of them. Time and space, growth and opportunity really means soaking up whatever is there and utilizing it; seizing every opportunity. As it says, whatever you are able to do with your might, do it (Ecclesiastes 9:10). You should put your absolute into everything you are presented with and not leave it.
After my gap year, and to this present day, three things in particular have stood out to me, highlighting and defining the importance of my gap year and I think the gap year in Israel in general. Connecting these three things with time and space, growth and opportunity, I have gained some parallel understanding from other previous Israel gap year participants and I think it’s important I present them in the following formula.
The people (Am Yisrael)
Who is wise? One who learns from all people (Avot 4:1).
Coming from London, and being a “Brit” as they like to say, definitely increased my cultural understandings, beneficially. Despite the fact the percentage of British participants who attended my institution contrasted tremendously with those of North American descent, it was of no problem. I truly learnt that there is absolutely no difference between us. I might play football, not soccer, and I might eat sweets, not candy, but I am still part of Am Yisrael, as is everyone else who I had with me. Definitely a moment of ‘vayichan’ (Exodus 19:2) as the singular word refers to a whole people unified, k’ish echad b’lev echad – like one person with one heart. I gained friends who I call my best friends, and friends who are the same as me, part of Am Yisrael. I was still able to express and learn more about my Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist values, as was everyone around me. I was myself, and felt, and will always feel connected to people like-minded to myself, as we all had the desire to be in Israel and grow towards something. Since hearing from other Israel gap year participants, it seems that one of the most common phrases that they associate with the year is to “be yourself” – and on your gap year, that couldn’t be more true. That couldn’t be easier, when you are surrounded by Am Yisrael, in an environment completely surrounded by people like you. An environment where everyone breathes blue and white. As a result, you are able to grow very quickly, because of the inspiration thrown directly at you.
As I will discuss more (see The Torah (Torat Yisrael) below) the people you too learn from and who are a significant part of your year are your teachers. Every teacher, and every one of your rabbeim are there to not only put you on a path of Am Yisrael, but are there to give you something which will shape you to be yourself.
Furthermore, expanding to outside of institutions, you are presented with a society. This society is not just any society, it’s once again, a society of Am Yisrael. Queueing in a line at a Makolet and greeting the cashier, approaching the residents of the Rova, your tour guide on a tiyul, your taxi driver, and standing with thousands of people wearing blue and white, waving flags with Jewish music playing on Yom Yerushalayim, just to name a few, is Am Yisrael. Your gap year might be based in an institution, but it’s also about you being exposed to the society and culture of where you are; and much of that is the people. You will always find Am Yisrael, no matter where you are, whether you are on your designated program or not. For me, specifically, I studied in the Old City of Jerusalem. Therefore, having “the squares of the city crowded with boys and girls playing” (Zechariah 8:5) behind my living accommodation was very defining to my experience of Am Yisrael. I too, had daily face-to-face interaction of a prophecy being fulfilled and that connected me to Am Yisrael. And I cannot forget Jerusalem – the only place in the world where you hear Lecha Dodi playing on speaker outside your dormitory on erev Shabbat. Jerusalem – symbolic through its holiness, is a place symbolic for its connection to the people and to Am Yisrael. This draws me to the point that I had the kotel as my “back-yard”; the center of Am Yisrael. The center of Am Yisrael as the place we come together to create something meaningful – individually and collectively.
Ultimately, being in a place where you can so easily identify with the people is a truly special feeling. Here we can apply our first Lech Lecha, “I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:13). Your gap year is being part of that nation.
The Location (Eretz Yisrael)
“A land which your God looks after, on which your God always keeps an eye, from years beginning to years end” (Deuteronomy 11:12)
Just as we are always meeting up with new routes on Waze to get us to wherever we need to be, new routes within our schedules, such as going to appointments or adding something into our day, new places, the same happens during your year in Israel, but in a unique way. You are meeting up with new places which are geographically full of physical and historical beauty. You are meeting up with new places which are the center of Godliness. You are meeting up with places which are the defining point of where you come from. A location where we meet the presence of God more than anywhere else, where the Torah can be fulfilled completely, on a level like you have never experienced before.
Firstly, something which stands out to me from my year, was coming to terms with the phrase “The Land Flowing with Milk and Honey” (Exodus 3:8 / 3:17). Two items which are essential, deep and enriching, but also fundamental that depict the holiness of the Land of Israel.
In a chavrusa recently, a friend and I learning Tanakh came across Yitzchak approaching Be’er Sheva (Genesis 26:23) and it struck both of us immediately after reading the pasuk, that this is the Be’er Sheva we all know today. Studying ancient texts from your ancestors, and being able to walk that piece of land being described – astonishing! It’s the same with nevuot (prophecies) which are being heard today and then finally being able to see them. For example, it says that there will come a time when the desert will become like Gan Eden (Isaiah 51:3). The Negev tiyul only provides you with palm trees in the desert which is a fulfilment of this prophecy. We find and explore such places that have so much of our history embedded into them, and through that we touch down to where our ancestors were and relive what the Torah describes. Along with historical greatness and integrating the biblical with the land, also comes physical beauty. Ein Gedi, Yam l’yam and The Red Canyon, to name a few, are experiences that always stick to one’s memory because of the physical geography we come to terms with. It is the reality of sleeping in the wilderness, sleeping under the stars and the attractive nature which exemplifies it. In addition, many other participants continuously have pointed out to me how they appreciated going to different places for Shabbatot, being presented with new places, allowing them to once again, find that deep historic and physical connection to the land.
As it says, “walk about the land, through its length and it’s breadth, for I give it to you” (Genesis 13:17). And so, here we can apply our second Lech Lecha.
The Torah (Torat Yisrael)
They say: the more you put in, the more you get out. That couldn’t be more accurate, especially through the lens of Torah learning during your gap year in Israel and time in the Bet Midrash. Your gap year is where you learn how to learn.
Unfortunately, a very common misconception is that Judaism is only viewed as something that is about rules and restrictions within halakha, and that they are not meaningful, but as your gap year very clearly shows you, that is not the case. Halakha in fact, when applied properly, as I have definitely learnt, allows you to connect to God in every aspect of life and gives the mundane meaning. As an actively proud Orthodox Jewish woman myself, I can’t stress enough how to me, even when I may not practically be able to fulfill a certain mitzvah, it still says something to me deeply and personally, keeping me attached to God. Subsequently, it is clear from my gap year, and the Midrasha experience, how much opportunity there is for Orthodox Jewish women to learn and engage with intense Torah learning, through the likes of daf yomi, and being able to act as creative role models giving shiurim, whilst combining it with Derech Eretz.
Since hearing from other Israel Gap Year participants, it seems to be that something a large majority say was so important to them was really having clarity with this particular area, as every individual came to terms with, and really had a deeper understanding of what it meant to have so many learning opportunities which became more meaningful, allowing the spiritual to build up. In addition, many people indicated that being able to learn so regularly, with the inspiration given to them from their rabbeim and mentors, was a big hit for them, and it was also having the confidence to learn texts. It says “exile yourself to a place of Torah – and do not assume it will come after you – for it is your colleagues who will cause it to remain with you” (Avot 4:18). We are taught not to expect the Torah to come easily to us. Instead, we should transport ourselves to the Torah with having those around us assist us, in helping us grow and allow the Torah to become sweet. That is very much the center-piece of your learning experience.
In terms of strengthening my connection to God through Torah, I found that it came from deeper mussar, whether it being through texts that allowed me to work on myself, or engaging in texts themed around chasidut, which unfortunately a lot of gap year participants are not exposed to before their gap year. There is not enough focus on how we work on ourselves, and our relationship with God. This personally shaped my Torah learning experience in the Bet Midrash, but also post-gap year.
This links back to one of my first points (see The People (Am Yisrael) above) about becoming you, and being yourself. A big part of being yourself directly correlates to your Torah learning. Hearing from other participants, they too felt that finding what they enjoyed learning really put them on the right path to having a meaningful year through growth and becoming themselves. It seems that many people said they gained so much more confidence when they knew they had clarity with what they enjoyed to learn and it gave them further opportunities when they had chavrutot with teachers. This meant they could explore what they enjoyed with someone else who could inspire them further.
Personally, as well as texts themed around chasidut, which I found particularly inspiring through my learning and connected me to God, I found a contrasting approach in finding what I enjoyed. This approach was to really make sure I had a taste of everything before narrowing down what I really wanted, and part of that meant pushing myself with areas that were more difficult. For example, before my gap year I was never exposed to deep, methodological textual analysis in tanakh, and at the time, my Hebrew was very average. Instead of feeling anxious to participate in these areas and avoiding them, I seized every opportunity, and ended up thoroughly enjoying it. This definitely shows how sometimes it is useful that we don’t just stick to those things which come natural to us, rather we should always push ourselves and sometimes go into the deep end and see what we can achieve. As a result, this has definitely contributed to my growth as a person and not only have my skills in this area improved, but my confidence has improved.
Although I have not used biblical quotation in this instance, here we apply our third lech lecha. That is, taking a spiritual journey through religious texts, and being taken to a place where we gain blessings that stimulate us.
As I have come to terms with these three categories, I know that each of them transformed me, and have transformed others on the Lech Lecha experience through an independent journey. This journey is definitely one of time and space, with growth and opportunity that elevate every person to become a better version of themselves. What is so significant about these three categories is that they contribute so significantly to what is next – as mostly every participant yearns to be a part of Am Yisrael, have their portion in Eretz Yisrael, and live according to Torat Yisrael. This only stimulates one’s identity, and I truly believe this portion should never be missed out on in a person’s lifetime.