Truly Once in a Lifetime? An Approach to Maximizing the Israel Gap Year Experience
It is almost de rigueur for Modern Orthodox Jewish teenagers to spend a gap year in Israel following completion of high school. For some, it is the experience of a lifetime, a Camelot in Jerusalem. For others, it is a disillusioning journey in a foreign land with a different culture and little emotional support. After having experienced Israel firsthand during the 2009-10 academic year, I have emerged shaken, but hopefully a bit wiser for the effort.
In his Jerusalem Post blog entry entitled “Once in a Lifetime?,” Nathaniel Rosen reflects upon his year in Israel experience. He explores what it is about the post-high school year in Israel, specifically in a religious yeshivah or midrashah program, that makes it a unique event, one that cannot be experienced at any other point in life or in any other place. He explains that it is really “against the backdrop” of the Land of Israel that all of the Torah that one learns during this year comes alive. The independent, voluntary, and critical study of Jewish texts, the exposure to each facet of a living Jewish people, and the connection with thousands of years of authentic Jewish sites help each person develop a meaningful appreciation for Judaism as a religion and Israel as the Jewish homeland. It is also this year that marks the transition from the limited educational repertoire of an adolescent to the more sophisticated and challenging educational experience of an adult.
But many eighteen and nineteen-year-olds in some of the same yeshivot and midrashot have the exact opposite experience of what Rosen describes. They find Israel’s beaches, bars, and nightlife to be almost hypnotic. The loosely-monitored educational system becomes an opportunity for exploitation. Classes are there to be skipped, Ben Yehuda Street is a hotspot for drugs and alcohol rather than for shopping and eating, and weekends are an invitation to explore prohibited locations. They are in the same land and the same schools as the students that Rosen discusses, but their experiences are worlds apart.
How does one make the gap year journey into a spiritually-uplifting experience of a lifetime and avoid the pitfalls that turn it into a spiritually vacuous adventure? The answer lies in looking at a broader definition of religious growth, resisting the challenging social pressures of family, friends, and the Israeli institutions themselves, and modifying one’s own level of expectations.
To begin with, one must be open to growth. In her perspective-stretching book Mindset, Carol Dweck distinguishes between fixed mindsets, held by those who believe that ability and knowledge are finite, and growth mindsets, held by those who view each challenge and each failure as a steppingstone to later success. Yeshivah and midrashah students must be willing to challenge previous perspectives, move out of their comfort zones as they expand their horizons, and be able to view success and failure as part of an overall growth experience.
But it is not sufficient to simply have a growth mindset. To have a successful gap year in Israel, one must also understand the meaning of true Jewish religious growth. The mission statements of many yeshivah and midrashah websites include goals such as enriched Torah study, exposure to the beauty of the Land of Israel, and contact with other types of Jews; yet, schools often do not actually provide students with such a diversity of experiences. First, the curricula of most programs focus on Torah study with a strong emphasis on talmudic erudition, so there is rarely any quality time to engage in other aspects of Torah learning. Perhaps as a response to this concern, there has been a recent increase in the number of programs that, in addition to championing the study of Talmud, focus as well on the study of Tanakh, Jewish philosophy, and Jewish history. Also, traditional yeshivah and midrashah programs have been geared to the privileged few who can sustain focus over a fourteen-hour day of rigorous textual study, often leaving behind students who have shorter attention spans or grow more by engaging with their creative abilities. Again, perhaps in response to these criticisms, there has been a rise in the number of programs that blend Torah study with art, music, and programming designed to nurture the soul.
In terms of exposing students to the beauty of the land, many traditional yeshivah and midrashah programs do apportion time to explore the land; however, they are focused on isolated tiyyulim (day-long hiking trips) to various geographic regions of the country and do not include interactions with the people of Israel. In some newer programs, there has been a greater focus on exploring Israeli cities, with a special emphasis on exposure to the poor and downtrodden members of Israeli society. In addition, there has been a real focus on exposing students to Israelis from all walks of life. Some programs have even integrated communal service into their weekly schedules, providing students with an opportunity to interact with members of Israeli society on a consistent basis.
Unfortunately, these newer programs are still not considered mainstream by many because they do not adhere to the more traditionally-accepted definition of religious growth, which is focused on the number of pages of Talmud that can be learned in a week or the number of commentators that can be quoted from memory. It is time to redefine religious growth. Students should learn to view God as the bore olam, the creator of a vast, beautiful, and multifaceted world filled with variegated groups of fascinating human beings, in addition to being the noten ha-Torah, the giver of the Torah. Jewish religious growth, then, must include both the academic as well as the spiritual, experiential, and interactional. It must incorporate all types of Torah learning as well as programming that connects students with the Land and people of Israel.
Beyond redefining religious growth, students interested in maximizing their year must properly approach the societal pressures placed on them by parents, siblings, teachers, and friends. For many, there are pressures to appear different externally in order to prove that they are really absorbing the Torah lessons to which they have been exposed. As a result, many students feel the need to adopt humrot (stringencies) that they had never previously felt were necessary. For some, that takes the form of wearing longer skirts or white shirts or no longer talking to members of the opposite gender. For others, it involves only eating in mehadderin min ha-mehadderin-certified (ultra-stringent kosher) restaurants. For still others, this means extending their shemoneh esreh by five minutes. Now, this is not to say that self-improvement in the areas of tseni’ut, kashrut, and kavvanah in tefillah is not a worthy goal. However, students should undertake these changes as a result of personal conviction, not because they want to comply with external pressures.
Other gap year students feel pressured to cast off the religious practices of a strictly observant adolescence and adopt a more lenient and cosmopolitan approach in preparation for participation in the American college scene. The beautiful beaches of Eilat and the exciting nightlife of Tel Aviv are tempting models for the secular lifestyle into which the student will be entering upon his or her return home.
Finally, gap year students sometimes feel pressure to remain the same. Many students are warned by friends and family not to change and are paralyzed by the thought that they might somehow emerge as a different person at the end of the year. It is challenging for an eighteen and nineteen-year-old yeshivah high school graduate to withstand all the pressures urging him or her to change, one way or another, or to remain the same. To be truly successful, gap year students must realize that it is okay to try new things and even to take religious risks, but that they need not fundamentally change who they are, where they have come from, or what they believe.
In addition to redefining religious growth and keeping societal pressures in perspective, it is critical that students reevaluate their expectations. In his book Happiness is a Serious Problem, Dennis Prager asserts that having high expectations is the greatest cause of unhappiness. The more one expects, the less happy he or she will be in life. However, lowering expectations should not negatively impact our desire to achieve. According to Prager:
“One should not assume for a moment that a lack of expectations means not being ambitious, not aspiring towards the highest goals, or not thinking positively. However, not having expectations does ensure two beautiful things: minimum suffering over unfulfilled goals and profound gratitude over goals that are fulfilled. … [T]hose of us who have minimized our expectations walk around with a greater sense of thankfulness (because so many wonderful things that we didn’t expect come our way each day) and with far less bitterness (because few, if any, expectations have been frustrated) than those who have expectations.”
Reducing expectations bolsters one’s efforts to continue to improve and to become the best that he or she can be. It minimizes the setbacks one would normally suffer from and replaces them with feelings of appreciation for what has gone right and what will be helpful in the long term. Yeshivah and midrashah students need to keep Prager’s concept in mind in setting high goals for their gap year in Israel while maintaining low expectations as well. Setting goals for what one wants to achieve during his or her year in Israel helps maintain focus and fuels a feeling of fulfillment at the end of the year. But expecting that one’s year will be easy and wrinkle-free can only lead to disappointment and possibly even despair when things do not work out exactly as anticipated. For individuals with growth mindsets, like Nathaniel Rosen, sometimes the surprising twists and turns or unlikely events will be the factors that most profoundly impact one’s year. Leaving one’s mind open to unexpected opportunities in random places like the shuk (Mahane Yehuda market) or the Tahanah Merkazit (Central Bus Station) can yield mind-expanding development equal to that advertised by yeshivot or midrashot. With the adoption of this low-expectation approach, it becomes easier to appreciate and feel gratitude for all of the year’s experiences.
In August 2009, as I left home to begin my gap year in Israel, I thought I was primarily interested in intense, high-level learning, and I was excited to be in an environment where I could really gain a greater appreciation for my religion and for the land of my people. But my preconceived notions about religious growth, my difficulty in resisting societal pressures, and the very high expectations I had set for myself caused me to hit a wall that shattered my self-esteem, damaged my decision-making capacity, and nearly crushed my ability to grow. Only after taking the unconventional step of moving to a new seminary – which solved many, but not all, of my challenges – did I begin to realize that my growth was not meant to come solely from the knowledge I could attain by learning four hours or more of Talmud each day. The success of my year in Israel was ultimately defined by my realization that I was on a journey: a journey to become more aware of who I was and who I was meant to be; a journey to search for a better understanding of my strengths and weaknesses, talents and flaws; one that required painful failure as a steppingstone to ultimate success.
The year in Israel can bring a student to the gates of heaven or the depths of hell. As my own experience taught me, to achieve the former and truly maximize the year, one must first leave behind all preconceived notions of the meaning of religious growth and be open to a more richly-defined growth. This is growth that blends academic development with heightened spirituality, Talmud study with other worthy disciplines, and Torah study in general with an awareness of the land of Israel and the Jewish people. Second, one should use this gap year to find the courage to look within rather than to succumb to the judgments, opinions, and influences of family, teachers, and friends. It is a time to change if change seems right and to remain the same if that is what seems appropriate. Last, one must reduce expectations in order to minimize disappointment and maximize gratitude and appreciation. My personal story taught me that these three elements are critical but also, more importantly, that the success I ultimately experienced was not a finite end to my religious development, but the beginning of a process. The year in Israel is meant to be the floor, rather than the ceiling, of one’s personal and Jewish odyssey. The adoption of the right mindset and attitude towards spending the gap year in Israel is the key towards making the most of the experience and returning with a renewed commitment to personal and communal growth.
Tammie Senders is a sophomore at SCW majoring in Jewish Studies.
 Nathaniel Rosen, “Mid-life Crisis?,” The Jerusalem Post, February 12, 2009, available at: http://cgis.jpost.com/Blogs/yeshivahboy/entry/mid_year_crisis_posted_by#. Though Rosen does not discuss the exact term “growth mindset” as explained in Dweck’s book, he proves in this blog entry to be a prime example of this phenomenon.