There is no need to elaborate on the difficult year that we have all experienced.
This was a long, challenging year that not one of us will quickly forget.
However, as the Rabbi of Noam, the Conservative youth movement, who is in contact with Israeli youth daily, I would like to point out one particular age group that seems to have had a particularly meaningful year despite the trying times.
The average high school senior experiences their senior year as one of adventure. A year to party, to stretch boundaries and delve in to new, exciting experiences. One’s final opportunity, if you will, to behave irresponsibly.
This year, the world stood still. No parties, barely any social gatherings, and the classes of 2020 and 2021 had no choice but to experience a fundamentally different senior year than anything they could have dreamed of. The challenges that we all met hit them differently.
The last year of high school is an opportunity to solidify friendships – valuable ones that have the heavy potential to last a lifetime. This, of course, wasn’t possible to its fullest extent over Zoom and through windows.
In the future we will more fully understand the extent to which Zoom, and more broadly the dramatic shift of most human communication to technological platforms, have moved us. Regardless, we can be certain that the important social and educational experiences that should have sealed their first chapter of formal education were stolen from them. Nothing will be able to bring these back – not this year and not what it could have been.
In preparation for the next school year, we see a significant rise in the number of seniors who are choosing and have chosen to take an additional year of learning upon themselves. Despite the less-than-positive experiences in their last years of formal education, these young men and women are choosing to spend another year in a formal setting, preparing themselves for the chapter ahead – if in the army and if towards higher education. They are choosing to extend this period just slightly, and give themselves the gift of one more year. A year of volunteering, a year of spiritual growth, a year of maturing and above all – a year that will hopefully include human connection.
These young men and women are seeking to stop time, if briefly, and to meet new people, have new experiences, and leave the computer screens and Zoom accounts behind and at home. This readiness to leave parts of themselves behind and explore their futures has always been true, but is much truer now in the current climate.
In the last year, families went through trying times that impacted each one in their own way. These seniors had to deal with family responsibilities that were not as dramatic before the pandemic. Many families became closer, many more realised just how dependent they were on each other.
If, God forbid, a family member tested positive for Covid-19, this affected the whole family. But even those families that remained healthy encountered other problems, personal anxiety and anxiety of their loved ones, care for younger siblings, missing those that were stuck living through the pandemic elsewhere. Siblings became responsible adults in many situations, all while they were expecting to have one last year of irresponsibility.
And when the family is in quarantine or confined to their homes. These young adults lost their privacy at a time when it was so important to them.
One place that could have refreshed their minds was school, and they could not attend. School moved mostly to the computer, allowing students to learn new things in a formal way but preventing other, just as important, personal opportunities for growth. Even if he or she succeeds in school over Zoom, the average senior is left in a very complicated emotional place. This year can be an opportunity for meaningful learning. Not for grades or for acquiring knowledge, but for personal and spiritual growth. These young adults have understood that these things are missing in their lives, and are choosing to actively take them back.
This year was not one of giving and of taking. Mankind struggled together, each person or community impacted by the virus in their own way. Everyone needed help. Everyone was susceptible to exposure, and everyone could help others when called upon. We all needed help, and we could all help each other.
The average high school senior discovered the power of hessed, the power of doing good. They discovered the power of distributing food to those in need, of caring for the children of doctors and medical staff, and so much more. And seniors discovered these things, They saw their own power to do good and to improve, the youth wanted to give more, to give from themselves to the world.
This year, Noam is expanding our activity and opening a six month gap year program. This decision was made largely due to the strong desire of our youth for it to come to be.
This coming year can become a year of adventure, a year to catch up on the experiences of which Covid-19 high school seniors had missed out. They can go to parties, and enjoy the things they planned to enjoy as they finished high school. However, this year can also be so much more. They can make up for lost time, but even more so – they can grow and reach new heights that they had not even dreamed of. In light of and because of the experiences and lessons learned in the last year, our gap year programs and others can be so much more impactful than they have been before.