By Gabi P. Remz
AIPAC and J-Street send very different messages. Netanyahu and Obama cannot agree. Synagogues vehemently debate the prospects of saying a prayer for the IDF. So for an 18-year-old fresh out of high school and beginning to flesh out his or her relationship to Israel and Judaism, all the confusion and flat-out angry disagreement can lead to a very unfortunate result: apathy.
According to The David Project, less than three out of every 10 Jews under the age of 35 identify as Zionists. More than four out of every 10 Jews younger than 35 do not believe caring about Israel is an important part of being a Jew. (
It is important to note, however, that some may simply not feel comfortable with the politically charged term “Zionist,” and therefore do not identify as such.)
Still, there is growing concern over increasingly apathetic youth, and so many parents and educators are looking for ways to help their children foster a deeper connection to Judaism and Israel. Birthright Israel was founded in 2000 to address these concerns, and has sent nearly 200,000 young people from 52 countries to Israel over the last decade. However, Birthright trips only last 10 days, a very short time to pack in thousands of years of Jewish history and culture.
Many parents also opt to send their children to Jewish day schools, which, as Professor Steven Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner, told The Forward, leads kids to be “disproportionately active in Hillel, Jewish studies, independent minyanim, Jewish learning, and [have] higher rates of in-marriage.”
However, day schools can be prohibitively expensive, and an increasingly popular alternative is that of taking a gap year in Israel. Though several programs have been around since the founding of the state in 1948, their participants totaled in the low hundreds. But as major American universities such as Princeton and Harvard endorsed the gap year idea in the last decade, the idea of a year to explore and grow before college has become far more mainstream for American college-goers in general.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof endorsed the gap year idea in a December op-ed, writing, “If you’re a high school senior, think about taking a ‘gap year’ — nearly all colleges will defer admission — and exploring the world. It’ll be cheaper than a year of college and may well be more educational.” Some gap-year programs offer significant college credit at a fraction of the price, making it a financially appealing option, and organizations such as MASA offer scholarships to those wishing to connect to their Jewish roots.
But what stands out about taking a gap year in Israel is not what can be saved on a year of college or how well the year in Israel can encompass so much of what is taught in 12 years of day school. What stands out are be the invitations to Shabbos meals received when walking around the Shuk on a Friday afternoon because, they say, that is what Jews do for each other. What stands out is when a stranger on the bus talks to you for an hour and a half, first trying to understand where you see yourself as a Jew before explaining his own journey and struggle. What stands out is being in the land where it all began and where it is all coming back together again. It is an unparalleled experience, and for young Jews trying to figure out where they stand, truly experiencing their nation will serve as an eternal reminder of who they are.
There are some drawbacks to taking a year off—Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger explains in a December article that when living abroad, “academic skills can get rusty.” Some students “lose direction after taking time off and don’t enroll in college,” so Shellenbarger recommends that students enroll in college before signing up for a gap year program.
The last few years have seen substantial growth in gap-year programs, particularly from the Jewish community. The gap year option in Israel had 7,904 participants in 2009, a number that has been steadily increasing since 2006, when the yearlong Israel programs had a total of 6,477 participants.
There are plenty of different gap year options in the country, from religious Yeshivas to dance programs to universities. One of the largest gap year programs, Young Judaea Year Course offers 27 credits (approximately equivalent to a full year of college) for a year, and the credits are recognized at most colleges.
One of the oldest and most popular Israel gap year programs, Year Course has sent Americans fresh out of high school to Israel since just after the founding of the state. This past year, more than 300 students spent the year learning Hebrew and the history of Zionism, volunteering everywhere from soup kitchens to farms, and traveling throughout the country.
The program, according to its website, looks to address issues such as the ability to “enable participants to grow as Zionists” by “demonstrating the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and responsibility toward the land of Israel.”
And the results of this program are staggering. According to Professor Cohen, who did a study entitled, “International Survey of Israel Program Graduates” Year Course alumni maintain a far stronger connection to the Jewish world and Israel than the rest of Diaspora Jews. The study showed that 91 percent of alumni marry other Jews, 79 percent maintain synagogue membership, 71 percent return to Israel two or more times in the years to follow, 72 percent volunteer in a Jewish setting, 57 percent contribute to Federation campaigns and 36 percent send their children to Jewish day schools.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said, “Every young Jew should spend at least one year of his life in Israel.” The evidence suggests that he was correct.