Shanah ba-Arets: Bridging the Gap
The year spent in Israel is often referred to as “the gap year,” a term that is quite problematic. A gap implies a hole, a break between two parts. This terminology encourages us to view the time spent studying in Israel as a break from the “real life” which comes before and after it – namely, high school and college. It is its own entity, separate and disconnected, standing in between the other parts of life.
Furthermore, even when not using that specific term, we sometimes conceive of the year in Israel as set apart from the rest of life; often, students, either on their own or based on what they are told, make the mistake of approaching the time spent in Israel as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience,” their “opportunity to learn Torah,” and the year of religious introspection and upheaval – to the exclusion of the rest of their lives.
These descriptions come with good intentions in mind. They reflect an attempt to encourage students to make the most of their year and get the most out of the religious and educational experiences that yeshivot and midrashot provide. Nevertheless, I believe that representing the year in Israel in this way is a grave error.
The shanah ba-arets is certainly a great opportunity. The environment of yeshivot and midrashot, in which students have fewer distractions and more time to focus on studying Torah than in other stages of their lives, certainly allows for tremendous growth. Nevertheless, the year in Israel is not the only opportunity for growth and learning. Students need to know that they should be constantly learning and growing: not only during their year in Israel, but also before and after. When understood in this light, what happens during the year in Israel is not so different from what happens during the rest of the years of their lives. It is not a break to do something else; rather, it is part of the ongoing process of growth and learning in which students should be involved for their whole lives. The Torah study that they do in Israel is meant to be part of a lifelong quest for Torah. The religious growth achieved in Israel is a part of a life-long struggle to perfect oneself as an oved Hashem (servant of God).
Describing the year in Israel as a “gap,” or designating it as the year for x, y, and z, makes it distinct and disconnected from the rest of life. It turns it into a “bubble” – a year of growth that is unparalleled in, and separate from, the rest of the stages students will go through in life. To describe the year in Israel as the year of spiritual growth, thus implying that the returning eighteen/nineteen-year-old students have completed their only year of growth and reached their spiritual height, is a scary thought. I certainly hope that students continue to make progress, spiritually and intellectually, well beyond the young age of eighteen. Be-ezrat Hashem, they will have many more religiously meaningful years of life to come.
Thinking of the shanah ba-arets as a “gap year” creates problems for students both before and after their year of study in Israel. I have heard high school girls say, “I wear pants now, but it’s okay – I’ll ‘flip out’ in Israel,” or, “I’m not ‘shomer [negi’ah]’ now, but I probably will be after Israel.” If one really believes that, according to Halakhah, he or she should not be wearing pants or engaging in physical contact with members of the opposite gender, why should one continue doing so until he or she arrives in Israel? If one recognizes that there is something to change, why push it off? Why not make the change right away? The year in Israel should not be viewed as the only time to improve oneself. Rather, a person should constantly strive to perfect his or her kiyyum ha-mitsvot (mitsvah fulfillment) and personality traits.
Furthermore, if the year in Israel is a gap, many of the things that transpired there do not need to apply to “real life.” People come back from Israel and jump back into “real life,” forgetting to take with them everything they have gained and spent their time doing for the past year or two in Israel. They are forgetting to continue the processes they started there, forgetting that the halakhot they kept so stringently there still apply elsewhere, forgetting that their year in Israel is not the only year to learn Torah but that talmud Torah is something one should be involved in throughout one’ life.
Instead of treating Israel as a gap or break from real life, we need to educate our hanikhim (advisees) and students that there is more to real life than high school and college; what they go through during their year of Torah study in Israel is a part of it! Torah is real life. Learning Torah is not something reserved for the shanah ba-arets – “lo ba-shamayim hi” (the Torah is not in the heavens); Torah needs to be part of every Jew’s life, always. This message cannot be stressed enough and is not stated enough during students’ time in Israel. Students need to be told that though they are learning this year, they will not learn everything this year. Rather, they must keep learning, year after year. They need to set aside time from their busy college schedules in the following years to be osekba–Torah (involved in the study of the Torah), which is hayyeiolam (eternal life). They need to know it is going to be more challenging because they are going to be busy with other responsibilities, but this IS their life, and that is why they must keep doing it. R. Aharon Lichtenstein recently related a similar idea in a sihah (lecture) given in Migdal Oz. He said, “Sometimes in the yeshivah, there are discussions about Torah study as preparation for life. This infuriates me. Preparation for life? Preparation for something that does not yet exist – like training before the game?! This is life! Ki hem hayyeinu (for they [Torah and mitsvot] are our lives)!” Torah is not a gap, or a break, or even a preparation; it is an inherent part of a Jew’s life, always, and needs to be given the proper time and place at all stages.
Perhaps, when described as just a continuation of the rest of life, the shanahba–arets loses some of its thrill, some of its spectacularness. Nevertheless, that is a price worth paying; in describing the shanahba–arets as part of real life, we increase its effectiveness, long-term, immeasurably. Students will not only learn the Torah that they can manage to fit into one year, but will be encouraged to continue learning for many years to come. Students will not only grow as ovedeiHashem in that single year, but they will hopefully continue to strive to be better, always. This way, we encourage students to take the other parts of their lives more seriously. Furthermore, we ensure that students do not leave behind the Torah they are learning during the shanahba–arets when the year is over, that they do not throw off all the lessons they have taken when they leave the doors of the beit midrash and travel back across the ocean. Rather, they should leave armed with the strong arsenal of Torah, Halakhah, and middot which they have acquired over the year, and go forth with the recognition and anticipation that these are to continue to play a central role in their lives.
Fran Tanner holds a B.A. in Judaic Studies from SCW. She is currently in her Shanah Gimmel (third year) at Migdal Oz, where she is a madrikhah (advisor) for the Overseas Students.
 Author’s translation from Hebrew.