In this week’s cover story, reporter Shana Medel captures the phenomenon of the gap year, when students take a year off between high school and college to travel and take part in immersive programming.
The story focuses on gap-year programs in Israel, which it turns out is only second (tied with Ecuador) to the United States as the most popular gap-year destination. As you’ll read in the story, gap years prove to be transformational for participants and strengthen their character and their connection to Israel.
University of Maryland graduate Avi Schneider told the JT: “You’re dependent on your family in high school, but in Israel, I was on my own.”
I imagine gap years being a lot like a bus ride I took from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I had to navigate multiple buses in an unfamiliar transportation system, which ended when I finally got on the right bus to my hotel only to take it one stop too far. That put me in an unfamiliar neighborhood, trying to figure out where I was before finding a taxi for the ride back, all while dealing with language barriers.
Gap-year participants deal with this kind of adjustment twice — first when they start their new program in a new country that speaks Hebrew and a second time when they get home and have to readjust to life outside of Israel. In both cases, it simply takes time to get used to a new lifestyle, new surroundings and new customs.
Those who participate say they’re much richer for the experience, and the data shows that. According to the American Gap Association, “gappers” have higher GPAs and graduate earlier from college. Almost all said their programs helped them develop as people and increased their maturity.
I feel that every international trip I’ve taken — whether it’s my two trips to Israel or my recent trips to Macedonia, Austria and Ireland — has informed me as a person. Had I spent more than a few days or weeks in any of the places, not to mention a year, I imagine that effect would be even more profound.
We should applaud these students for investing in their future and recognizing that there is a lot to be learned outside, as well as inside, the classroom — a great lesson to learn before college.
And as the larger Jewish community continues to worry about the Jewish identities of young Jews, there should be some hope from these teenagers — yes, these transformative experiences are happening to teenagers — who are strengthening their connection to their heritage and the Jewish state, and coming back to the U.S. with the knowledge and maturity to discuss Israel from an informed point of view.