A group of high school college counselors from the United States and Canada traveled to Israel to collaborate on opportunities for real culture change in the gap year space.
Masa Israel Journey, the driving force behind the trip, hosted the counselors for one week in Israel. Although Masa usually tailors its programs to a young Jewish audience, the organization looked to established thought leaders to engage the Jewish population and better understand gap year programs.
The delegation of 11 members visited ten gap year programs to see their impact on the Jewish world. Masa offered the counselors a chance to meet and discuss with directors, current fellows, and alumni along the way—including some from their high schools.
Notable change-makers the cohort collaborated with include renowned scholar Dr. Gil Troy and politician and activist Natan Sharansky. Both Troy and Sharansky are vocal advocates of the benefits of taking a growth-focused gap year.
“A gap year is a unique chance to… experience Israel, connect to Judaism, and learn about Jewish history,” Sharansky said. He thinks the year is an opportunity to learn about both one’s culture and oneself.
“We want a gap year in Israel to be as natural a part of the non-Orthodox Jewish experience as the Yeshiva year has become for religious Jews,” Dr. Troy added. “Instead of asking our high school students in the Diaspora, ‘where are you going to college,’ it is time to ask, ‘which amazing Israel program are you going on, before college?’”
The practice of taking a gap year, a period of work or travel before the traditional four-year college trajectory, is quite common in some parts of the world. However, it is not often encouraged in the U.S.
Historically, young adults in Europe are more likely to choose gap years. Nearly five times the number of college-bound graduates defer in the United Kingdom than in the U.S. Part of the reason for this markedly different number is encouragement from family, teachers, and guidance counselors—or rather, the lack of it.
One study from Gap Year Association found that only 3% of colleges encouraged a gap year, and a mere 2% of high school staff were a motivator for experiencing a gap year. Masa sees the cultural value inherent in these programs, and it is looking to close the gap in gap years through outreach and education.
The year between high school and college is one of the most formative times in a young person’s life, says the senior leadership at Masa Israel Journey, and can greatly impact the Jewish community both at home and in Israel.
“There is no experience more powerful for determining impactful, positive Jewish and Israel engagement than through the immersive year after high school,” said Sarah Mali, Vice President of Leadership & Impact at Masa.
Every year, Masa provides opportunities for thousands of young Jewish adults to volunteer, intern, work, and learn in programs that allow them to gain an international perspective while living independently in Israel.
Mali and the rest of the Masa staff structured the week-long delegation to highlight the diverse opportunities for recent high school graduates in Israel.
The guidance counselors came from a broad array of institutions: Orthodox and independent high schools, as well as Jewish teen organizations working in public schools. Representing schools from New York, Florida, Texas, Toronto, and more, the counselors visited ten gap year programs in Israel.
As leading professionals in their field, these delegation members brought decades of expertise that they shared with Masa and the program organizers. From April 30 to May 5, the group participated in thought leadership discussions and educational programs.
All delegates appreciated the chance to engage with two prominent thought leaders in the Jewish world. “I felt both incredibly humbled and honored to listen, learn, and engage in active dialogue with both Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy earlier this morning,” said Laura Miller, Director of College Counseling at The Leffell School.
Miller and a few of her colleagues spoke to the bold ideas and perspectives that Sharansky and Dr. Troy brought to the table in discussions of college culture. The roundtable brainstormed ideas that serve to engage a generation of young Jews, starting with an immersive experience in Israel.