Filling the gap: The case for a post-high school year in Israel
Although the notion of taking a year’s break between high school and college appeals to many young people, parents often think a year abroad is a luxury of the privileged. However, counselor Phyllis Folb argues that a gap year can be an essential component of a young Jewish adult’s higher education.
Folb, a college and gap-year counselor at Find Your Right Direction, is a passionate advocate of Jewish teens spending a gap year in Israel. Since 2012, the mother of two adult daughters has created and produced gap-year fairs, which inform students and their parents about educational programs in Israel that U.S. students can attend before college.
“Long before ‘gap year’ was a buzzword, the Jewish community knew the importance of sending their kids to Israel,” Folb said. “It was never meant to be extravagant. While there is tuition, in many cases it is far less than what a parent would pay for either school fees or extracurricular activities. The investment made is paid back in huge dividends in students’ Jewish learning and ability to navigate their Jewish future.”
This year’s Los Angeles Israel Gap Year Fair, presented by Masa Israel Journey and co-sponsored by various local high schools and eight area synagogues, will take place Nov. 16 at Shalhevet High School.
The 2014 Israel Gap Year Fair welcomed hundreds of students and parents to interact with representatives from more than 30 Israel gap-year programs ranging from traditional learning programs to community and army service. The 2015 fair will accommodate more than 40 gap-year programs.
Israeli Consulate representatives will provide information on what to expect during the year abroad, as well as offer practical information on student visas and other expat concerns. Presenting sponsor Masa Israel Journey will be providing funding for thousands of students to attend these programs over the course of many years, and will be on hand to process applications for funds.
There will also be representatives from Yeshiva University, Touro College Los Angeles, Binghamton University and American Jewish University to discuss the Israel gap-year options at their schools. Folb believes the programs offered by the U.S. schools are attractive options for many families because they provide support, such as academic counseling, to optimize the transition from the gap year to U.S. universities.
Folb said a gap year offers students a competitive edge in college and beyond; employers tend to perceive gap-year students as worldly, global citizens, able to function well with a variety of people in the workplace.
According to Folb, many parents of gap-year students say their teens became more focused and goal-oriented, got better grades and had a better fix on their major as a result of their year away.
“I prefer to think of this gap-year program not as a ‘gap’ but an opportunity for young people to have a ‘fill-in year,’ in terms of filling their time with valuable experiences that will impact the rest of their lives,” said Lawrence Platt of Pico-Robertson, whose three adult children (Joshua, 35; Adeena, 32; and Ari, 26) did gap years in Israel before attending college. Although he describes his family as religious and Zionist, he points out that the fair highlights programs for religious and nonreligious students.
“Each one of my children had a different experience” Platt said. “Joshua, my oldest, went during the Second Intifada, which not only influenced his direction in life, but also helped him maintain his religious outlook as well as [gain] a deeper understanding of the land, culture and history of Israel. Ari missed a minyan at yeshiva because he woke up late, but went out to the Kotel and joined the minyan there. Where else can you get an opportunity to do things like that on a daily basis, as well as meet and study with people both native to Israel and from elsewhere?”
Ilana Drubach, 22, took a gap year before getting her degree in psychology from Touro College Los Angeles. Drubach, who lives in North Hollywood and works at Valley Torah High School Girls Division, said one of the most important things she gained from her gap year was taking greater responsibility for her personal, academic and religious life.
“The gap-year program introduces you to a different style of learning,” she said. “When I was in high school, even though I was on the honors track, there were always teachers around to help. In seminary, the responsibility to learn was entirely up to me. I had to learn how to rely on myself to best manage my time and find study techniques that worked for me. “
Current gap-year participant Mati Hurwitz, who is 18 and studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion, said attending the Israel Gap Year Fair last year was instrumental not only in his decision to go but also in helping him know what to expect.
“I suggest people going to the Gap Year Fair this year come with an open mind, as you never know what programs or opportunities will catch your eye or, perhaps, change your entire life,” the Valley Village resident said. “As a religious Zionist, this was something very important for me to do — learning about the history of the land and our people, and studying from ancient texts that our Jewish brothers and sisters have learned from over the course of thousands of years … and in the holiest place in the world. It’s a true gift, and it is an obligation for me to really embrace this opportunity.”