Why I’m Excited for Israel Night

It’s mid-November.  College application season.  High school seniors everywhere are scrambling to get paperwork together, essays written, fees paid, and, most of all, target schools identified.  Is it too academic?  Not academic enough? How’s campus life?  How’s my degree program? So many options……it’s so confusing!

The same is true of Seminary or Yeshiva ‘Gap-Year’ programs.  “How many of my friends are going?”  “My sister hated it, but I’ve heard good things and my favorite teacher recommended that I check it out.”  Too religious? Strict? Loose? Far?

And so, as these and other questions assume an important role in lunchroom debates, classroom discussions, and WhatsApp chats, students prepare for “Israel Night”.

For high school seniors in local schools, the annual ‘Israel Night’ is a rite of passage.  Various yeshivot and seminaries send representatives to major Jewish communities and the seniors and their parents are invited to learn about their options before embarking upon the applications process.  A million and one variables but at least there are choices.

Thank God for choices.

Students with special needs, however, don’t have many post high school options. The inclusion model present in many of our most prestigious yeshiva day schools is simply nonexistent in the gap year model.  These teens develop relationships and become a part of their respective school communities and then…..inexplicably….it starts to taper off. Their classmates are talking about college or Israel and, well, that’s just not for them.  In sophomore and junior years, they might have had something to contribute to a conversation about last night’s game, school politics, or the camp reunion in a few weeks, but now that they are seniors without plans, they aren’t really relevant.

It is encouraging that these are our problems.  After all, if there weren’t school inclusion programs, Friendship Circle, Yachad, or HASC, this important group would be largely invisible.  Not too long ago, this was exactly the case.  Kudos to the many courageous men and women; parents and professionals who have completely restructured the landscape for our special needs community.  At a recent talk to a group of gap year students, roughly sixty percent of the group told me that they had spent time with someone with a disability.  Incredible!  That number means that more often than not, our youth are engaging with people with disabilities.  Not an insignificant statistic at all!  Clearly, we can’t blame the mainstream students for not including their disabled peers.  They aren’t the ones excluding anyone, here.

Sometimes, reality is exclusive.  Just speak to a left-handed person trying to buy a guitar, or ask a college basketball player about his sneakers . And that’s ok, too – as long as we do what we can to make things accessible as often as possible.  In 2019, there are only 2 Year-in-Israel programs for young adults with special needs and of those, only one is strictly orthodox.  While this means that choices are very limited, that is something that these programs deal with and we do our best to provide for each student’s unique needs.  The next step, then, is to return to that senior homeroom and help introduce the special needs seniors to the conversation.  Now they, too, will have questions and concerns; plans and preferences and, just like their mainstream peers, they can’t always get exactly what they want, but what they can do is experience this stage of life in much the same way their siblings and neighbors did.  They can research an option, make a list of questions, write an essay and take an interview.  This year, (in Long Island or New Jersey, anyway) they can even attend Israel night!

So why am I excited about Israel night?

I am excited to represent our school but mostly, I am excited to put students with special needs back into the conversation.  I am excited for the students and their parents who have been marginalized and now have the opportunity to be present alongside their peers at such an important and symbolic event.  I am excited because our wonderful high school seniors who have been so inclusive will welcome the knowledge that their friends can consider spending a Year in Israel just like everyone else.  I am excited that the Israel Gap Year landscape now includes another kind of school for another kind of student and that I will join my colleagues from so many other schools and streams because our goals are identical.  I am excited because this (Israel Night) is a crucial link in the trajectory from school to Yeshiva to a Post Yeshiva college option and eventual independent living in an appropriately supported setting.

In a recent People Magazine piece celebrating a pictorial ad which includes young Ivy Kimble, a 4 year old with Down Syndrome, her mother Kristen is quoted as saying “Ivy booking the ad was not only exciting for her family — which includes three other daughters — but for anyone with a disability not used to seeing themselves in the media.”  Just by making ourselves visible, we are making a statement about inclusion and diversity.

I’m looking forward to greeting students and parents from all schools and of all abilities.

******

Sincere thanks to Yeshivat Frisch and HAFTR for their warm welcome.

For more information about Israel Night, please speak to your school’s Israel Advisor.  

About the Author
Avi Ganz is the program Director of Ohr Torah Stone's Yeshivat Darkaynu. He lives with his wife and five children in Gush Etzion where he volunteers for MD"A,plays the blues on his Hohner, and reminisces fondly of his days playing tackle football with the IFL.
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