Reflections on a gap year in Israel

Alex Maged

All across North America, high school seniors are busy deciding where they want to find themselves next September. While many will head straight to university, the idea of spending a year in Israel first has become an increasingly popular option for today’s Jewish teenagers.

There are new programs opening all the time, each catering to an ever-broader range of interests, backgrounds and professional tracks. Many of these now offer up to a full year of college credits as well, and institutions as reputable as Harvard University, Yale University and MIT have begun to actively encourage their students to take a gap year before starting on campus. Today, spending a year in Israel makes more sense than ever before.

It’s an option I chose for myself, and an option 30 of my classmates chose as well. Where are we? We’re at Bar-Ilan University and Hebrew University, on Young Judea and Nativ, in yeshivot and seminaries and in the IDF.

What are we doing? We’re exploring Judaism and studying chemistry. We’re volunteering in ambulances and interning with newspapers. We’re hiking up mountains, camping in deserts, touring historical sites and meeting some of the greatest politicians, artists and religious leaders in the Jewish world today.

Who are we with? We’re with 10,000 Jews our age who have come from 42 different countries to spend this year in Israel, too. (If I ever had doubts that there really are that many of us here, the first Friday morning on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem promptly put them to rest!)

For myself, I decided to spend the year in yeshiva. Like most people who chose this option, I came with a goal: to solidify my commitment to Jewish values and deepen my connection to the Jewish People.

Everything they say about Israel is true. There’s no comparing even the best of classes or prayer services back home to the ones found here. If you want to push the limits of what Judaism can be, if you want to give yourself a real chance of finding your avenue to relate to it, then you need to study Torah under its brightest teachers, experience what it means to celebrate the Jewish holidays in the Jewish homeland, and search for HaShem where He’s most accessible. This is what I came looking for, and it’s what I’ve found.

But I’ve found something else, too. You first notice it when, picking up on your accent as you struggle to ask the bus driver which stop you should get off at, seven different passengers chime in to help you with directions. You’re reminded of it every time a casual conversation ends with an exchange of phone numbers and an invitation to spend Shabbat. You see it most strongly when the volunteer co-ordinators in the soup kitchen you’re helping out at or at the blood drive you’re running impose time limits on your group, because there are actually too many people who want to help out and everyone needs to get a chance to give.

More important than Judaism of the head or heart, Israel has shown me Judaism of the day to day. Judaism in practice means that when rockets are falling on kindergartners in Netivot, you cancel your classes and put on a carnival to pick up their spirits. It means inviting teenagers with developmental challenges to join you on your Shabbatons and tiyulim, because they deserve to have fun, too. It means that instead of spending the first day of a new semester in the classroom, you spend it in hospitals and orphanages, putting smiles on the faces of those who are less fortunate. In a word, it means to think beyond yourself, to care for others, to give.

I strongly doubt there can be any experience more valuable than spending a year learning about, and then living out, values such as these – values that should form the foundation of one’s identity.

When you leave high school and gain your independence, the natural tendency is to look inwards and begin the pursuit of your own happiness. Taking a year in Israel has helped those of us here frame our newfound freedom with the correct perspective.

Slowly, surely, I think we’re learning that real maturity means learning to expand your focus outside of yourself and consider others. We have immersed ourselves in a society whose members, if ideologically divided at times, care for each other with a sincerity that is truly unique. We are training ourselves in an ethical system proven to instil sensitivity, consideration and an appreciation for the value of giving in its adherents.

We’re discovering ourselves, but not in a vacuum. We are charting our identity within a national context and religious framework much larger than ourselves. This is what a year in Israel has meant so far, at least to me.

If you’re a high school student looking to begin the next stage of your life with an unparalleled opportunity to grow and mature, to cultivate an identity rooted in timeless values, and to forge lasting connections with your people and their land, then a gap year in Israel is something I strongly recommend for you, too.

Alex Maged is a graduate of the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. He’s currently studying in Yeshivat Lev HaTorah in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel.