The gap year advantage
In recent years, an increasing number of American students have been recognizing the value of a gap year — a year between high school and college to explore the world, earn some money, do volunteer work, or participate in nonacademic or nontraditional programs. One highly visible recent example is Malia Obama, who decided to defer attending Harvard for a year in order to travel and gain life experience.
But even before the advent of the secular gap year in the 1960s, a year of learning in Israel had long been popular among Jewish high school graduates seeking spiritual growth and a connection to Israel.
“The Jewish community has been supporting going away to Israel after high school for years and years,” said Phyllis Folb, executive director of the American Israel Gap Year Association, a nonprofit that showcases the annual Los Angeles Israel gap year fair. “The kibbutz movement was also an influence on Jewish student travel and Israel exploration, long before the secular world caught up.”
Studies have shown that students are better prepared academically after a gap year, despite having taken a year off from homework, essays and tests. They are more likely to stay in college, stick with their major and take on all the responsibilities of college life, according to Folb, who helps introduce high school students to the multiple Israeli gap year programs available.
Many educators in the Los Angeles Jewish community consider a post-high school year in Israel as the natural next chapter in students’ Jewish education.
“We feel strongly that the gap year is a very important and powerful experience for our graduates on a few levels,” said YULA Boys High School’s Israel guidance counselor Rabbi Shimon Abramczik. “The year in Israel, particularly in the yeshiva programs, provides a really important capstone to the learning our students have engaged in while in high school.”
Out of the 38 students who graduated from the Modern Orthodox school this past June, 28 have enrolled in an Israel gap year program, and a majority of those — 23 — enrolled at a yeshiva. According to Abramczik, this number is consistent with the roughly 75 percent of YULA Boys graduates from the past few years who have gone to Israel after high school.
This high percentage can perhaps be attributed to the emphasis the school places on the year in Israel. Abramczik meets with every student and parent to discuss various yeshivot and other gap year programs to help decide which is most suitable for the student. Additionally, the school runs a January trip to Israel for seniors who want to visit yeshivot before choosing which to attend.
“The importance of the gap year in Israel is really built into the culture here,” Abramczik said. “Our numbers have continued to increase steadily, and I believe that they will continue to do so.”
YULA Girls High School also has a high number of graduates who go to Israel, though not always as high a percentage as its twin school. Of the most recent graduating class, 54 percent will take a gap year in Israel. The school had an unusually high number of students — 80 percent — go in 2011, but the percentage more typically falls between 60 and 70, according to Shira Hershoff, the Israel guidance counselor at YULA Girls. Most of these students have enrolled in seminary programs, which are similar to yeshivot but for female students. Others have attended Bar-Ilan University or gone into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Hershoff said parents often wonder why a gap year is necessary after they already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their children’s Jewish education.
Sarah Katchen (right) took part in the Young Judaea Year Course inIsrael, which allowed her to visit the Kotel in Jerusalem.
“It’s been so popular because kids stand to gain so much from it,” she said. “There’s independence-building, time to reflect on themselves and what they really want, and take ownership of where they’re headed in life beyond what their parents told them was important.”
She added that students are given an edge with colleges since they can talk about the impact the year had on them. Many students who reapplied to colleges after taking a gap year were accepted to better universities, Hershoff said. Some of these students wrote about their gap year experiences in their admissions essays, which Hershoff believes may have been a factor in their admissions.
A gap year culture has only more recently emerged at Shalhevet High School, which has seen the most significant hike in gap year participants among the schools contacted for this article. Two years ago, 20 percent of Shalhevet’s graduates went to Israel for the year, according to a June article in the Modern Orthodox school’s student newspaper, The Boiling Point. But in 2015, that number climbed to 59 percent, and it continued to increase this year, with 64 percent of the class of 2016 heading to Israel, including four who will be enlisting in the IDF. Many will be attending competitive yeshivot and seminaries across the country.
Principal Noam Weissman mainly attributed this phenomenon to a change in the school’s Judaic curriculum, which had students more connected to Israel and Torah studying.
“People started to see the coherence of Judaic studies in their lives and realized that it needs to mean something to them beyond their four years at Shalhevet,” he said. “Students started to enjoy learning Torah more than they ever had. … It was everyone on board growing together without trying to make anyone feel bad about not going to Israel but deeply and unapologetically saying, ‘This is a continuation and the next step.’ ”
At Milken Community High School, gap years in Israel are not as prevalent. Three students in this year’s class will be in Israel for the year. Typically, Milken will have between one and five students take a gap year in Israel, mostly to Nativ or Kivunim, which are programs geared toward Conservative Jews. Rather than studying at a yeshiva, Nativ incorporates Jewish studies with volunteering and traveling, and Kivunim students travel around the globe while learning about Israel and Judaism.
Representatives of seven Israeli gap year programs visited Milken during the past school year. But with about 150 students in each grade, the student body has wide-ranging interests, and the school wants its students to do what they feel is best for themselves.
“We do not make any overarching recommendations between gap year programs, two- or four- year colleges, or yeshiva,” said Ross D. Mankuta, Milken’s director of college counseling and academic planning. “We want our kids pursuing whatever opportunities they desire for themselves. We have many different types of students who are looking for varied environments and experiences after high school graduation. At Milken, that takes many shapes and sizes.”
At de Toledo High School, formerly known as New Community Jewish High School, in any given year, 3 to 5 percent of the students will take a gap year in Israel, according to Susan DeRuyter, director of college counseling.
Sarah Katchen, a 2013 graduate of Pacific Hills School in West Hollywood, said she benefited from the gap year she took in Israel three years ago. Fearing that seminaries would be too Orthodox for her, she enrolled in the Young Judaea Year Course, which blends learning, traveling and volunteer work.
Katchen took courses in Israeli history, Judaic studies and Hebrew. She was allowed to choose the means of learning the topic — through field trips, art or the standard class setting.
“I definitely had grown as a person in the sense that I became very independent and I grew spiritually,” Katchen said about her experience in Young Judaea. “I lived in Jerusalem and was able to go to [the] Kotel whenever I wanted to. Now that I am back, it’s made me realize how much Judaism means to me.”
After her year in Israel, Katchen decided to keep Shabbat and become more observant of Jewish holidays.
Counselors said that some parents, however, express concerns about gap years in Israel. Hershoff said finances can be an issue for many, as parents must spend what might be equal to a year of private school tuition. Some parents also worry about safety and security, especially after Ezra Schwartz, a Jewish teen from the Boston region, was murdered by a Palestinian gunman in November 2015, during his gap year in Israel.
Nonetheless, the gap year continues to be a popular option for Jewish students.
The American Israel Gap Year Association is a central resource for information on the programs available in Israel, and this year’s fair in Los Angeles will be held Nov. 17 at B’nai David-Judea Congregation.
Ultimately, Folb said, there is still a difference between a gap year in France, Spain or Brazil versus a gap year in Israel.
“The gap year is recognized as a key to academic success, but the gap year in Israel is life-changing,” Folb said.