The Year in Israel: An Introduction to the Shanah ba-Arets

The year in Israel has become a widespread social phenomenon, to the point that, as many of the writers in this issue note, students finishing their yeshivah or day school educations are almost expected to continue their study with a year in Israel. This year is seen as a unique opportunity to focus on study of Torah; the year in Israel is often considered central to the Torah education of the observant Jewish student. Some Jewish high school graduates of other denominations also choose to spend a year in Israel, post-high school, in various year-long programs. Conversely, many students in the Orthodox community, as well as in the broader Jewish community, do not spend a year studying in Israel. In the Orthodox community, many claim that the year in Israel is essential to establishing a strong Jewish foundation and a connection to Torah-observant Judaism. However, attending a shanah ba-arets program is not a guarantee that a student will remain connected to Torah, the land of Israel, and to Judaism, nor is it unlikely for students who do not spend a year in Israel to achieve goals similar to those who do.

As R. Rapp mentions in his interview[1], no two shana ba-arets programs are the same. Yeshivot, seminaries, and Israel volunteer programs all have different goals and mission statements. This is a positive phenomenon, in that students have a plethora of opportunities presented before them, and can find an institution with a curriculum and ideology most suited for them. Conversely, the variety in ideology, hashkafah, and goals can lead the students (and even educators) to overemphasize these differences, leading to factions and splits in the younger Jewish community. Students become obsessively concerned with details such as size, color, and material of kippot, or differences in centimeters of sleeve-length and skirt color. External differences are suddenly hyper-stressed, and are reason for students of different yeshivot or different seminaries not only to refrain from interacting with each other, but to express disdain and disrespect for each other. Accent and pronunciation of Hebrew words while learning Torah, or the students’ jargon and diction, become more important than the words being said and studied themselves.

It seems that the oft-asked question “where did you go in Israel?” serves to draw certain conclusions about the individual based on his or her answer. Furthermore, the one who answers “I didn’t go to Israel” is faced with the oftentimes-false assumptions of others. The enterprise of trying to delineate a person’s hashkafah or religious observance level based on where or whether they went to Israel for the year is unsophisticated and insensitive, and creates chasms in Jewish communities on college campuses. Perhaps these are just microcosmic manifestations of larger fissures in the broader Jewish community. Either way, there is definitely room for introspection and critical analysis of the broader project of the year in Israel.

That being said, the year in Israel is an opportunity for students to focus entirely on their Jewish identity, observance, and Torah study in an environment that fosters personal and spiritual growth during a time of transition from the structure of one’s family and home to the vast world of choice and independence of a university setting. It is important for the positive features of the year in Israel to continue to develop, while ensuring that the potential negative results are scrutinized and ultimately prevented. Thus, it is important for our community to devote time and energy in taking a close look at the year in Israel, as to ensure that the goals and effects of the year are serving the broader Jewish community in the best (and most varied) ways possible. The goal of this issue is to engage in a critical analysis of the phenomenon of the year in Israel and to offer a diverse spectrum of perspectives on the subject.

Most students writing for this issue have the obvious advantage of having spent a year or even two studying in Israel, and their perspectives are particularly important. Talya Laufer’s article makes a critical assessment of the Rebbe-talmid (Rabbi-student) relationship in the context of year in Israel programs. Chesky Kopel analyzes the anonymous anecdotes of a student spending a year in Israel at an unknown yeshivah published in The 5 Towns Jewish Times under the pseudonym “Talmid X.” Tammie Senders writes about her own year in Israel experience, and, among other points, stresses the importance of keeping an open mind during the year. Fran Tanner, a graduate of SCW and a madrikhah (counselor) for the American students studying at the Beit Midrash le-Nashim at Migdal Oz, powerfully emphasizes the need for students to view the year in Israel not as a “gap-year” but rather as a part of what students call “real life,” as she notes that viewing the year in Israel as the only or focal opportunity for Torah study in one’s life reduces its effectiveness.

Unique perspectives are presented in this issue by educators in shanah ba-arets programs. In her article, Mrs. Naomi Berman of Midreshet Lindenbaum discusses how the year in Israel impacts students and their involvement on college campuses, while an interview with Mrs. Mali Brofsky of Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim (MMY) offers insight on various facets of the shanah ba-arets. Additionally, an interview with R. Dani Rapp contains reflections on the year in Israel from the point of view of a Rebbe at Yeshiva University, and it discusses both spiritual and academical benefits for students. An interview with R. Dr. Shalom Berger, author of Flipping Out?: Myth or Fact? The Impact of the “Year in Israel,[2] provides historical and sociological insights on the year in Israel. In general Jewish thought, Chana Cooper writes about the status of the eved Kena’ani (Canaanite slave).

We hope that this issue provides insightful ideas on the phenomenon of the year in Israel, and that these insights are helpful and conducive to generating productive conversation in the broader Jewish community on this important educational matter.

 

Ilana Gadish is a student at SCW majoring in Jewish Studies with a minor in Biology. She is an Associate Editor for Kol Hamevaser.


[1] “An Interview with R. Daniel Rapp,” pp. 12-13.

[2] Shalom Z. Berger, Daniel Jacobson, and Chaim I. Waxman, Flipping Out?: Myth or Fact?: The Impact of the “Year in Israel” (New York: Yashar Books, 2007).