Spending extended time in Israel is the antidote for what ails the lurching Diaspora Jewish community. Gap year programs (GYPs) are the coruscating change agents.
If you want greater assurance your children will live Jewish-centered lives, send them to study here. There are no guarantees, but it is seemingly the one strategy about which Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular Jews agree.
In my experience, Orthodox high school graduates come for a year or two to learn in a yeshiva or seminary, building their base of Jewish knowledge, honing learning skills, tethering to rabbinic authority, cementing their faith through greater observance of halacha and staving off human desires until marriage, all to build Jewish families.
Most religious students return to their hometowns, while a small number will make aliyah. Some follow both paths, returning later in life and sending their older children to learn in Israel.
Others send students to Israel to expand their knowledge of Jewish history and culture, making it real, shaping faith in G-d, building commitments to tikkun olam and valuing Jewish communal life.
GYPs help students mature enough to return to Diaspora communities and college campuses as Israel advocates. GYPs are their opportunity to embed achudus (togetherness and solidarity) in their hearts and souls with the Jewish people, their people.
My granddaughter attends a seminary adjacent to a children’s foster home. The seminary women work long hours restoring confidence to the children. I have gap year students volunteering as English teachers and assistant teachers for Eritreans, Somalis and other refugees. They undertake internships in startup companies and Magen David Adom.
One young woman from Spain speaks six languages without reading or writing English. I partnered her with American and English students. She interned at The Jerusalem Post. By the end of her gap year, she published four articles under her byline.
A young woman from Canada in my business class created a résumé to help her secure an internship with a government minister. Her goal at 19 years old is to become the prime minister of Canada.
These are experiences we hear about across the panorama of GYPs. They are a mini Peace Corps. They make a difference.
Do not give short shrift to the jaunty experiences in the gap year abroad. Young Jewish adults live on their own, make decisions for themselves, get homesick, explore and hook up with family they never met.
Here are some issues when considering a GYP in Israel:
- GYPs are expensive, but there are innumerable scholarships and grants from the Israeli government and Jewish Diaspora organizations.
One of my former students with little money and less Jewish knowledge has a Christian friend whom he told about his unattainable desire to spend a gap year in Israel. The church his friend attends raised the money needed, and with other scholarships the young Jewish man spent his year in Israel.
- Israel is nature. It is bustling cities. It is a stone-built Old City where tourists come to see the sites and miss the humanity. There’s no other place where the fields and plains, caves and waterways, and urban life collide with history.
Read the soon-to-be-released “Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered” by The Times of Israel’s Sarah Tuttle-Singer to appreciate the five senses offered your children by spending time in Jerusalem and across Israel.
- Israel is modern, urban and safe. It is a place where Diaspora stereotypes are fractured. Arabs and Jews shop side by side in malls, men with kippot and Haredi women work in the same office or laboratory, and life resounds in restaurants. They can call you any time from anywhere, and they do.
Our 21-year-old army volunteer son tells us: “I can’t call you for a few days. We’re going someplace we’re not allowed to bring our cellphones. They track us like we track them.” Comforting.
Then two nights later he calls, whispering, “Hi, Dad.”
“What’s going on?” I ask in a whisper (don’t ask me why I whispered).
“We’re camped in some rocks for the night, and everybody’s calling their moms and girlfriends because my unit’s made-up of children away for the first time. I’m the oldest one here. My commander is 19. So how you doing?” he asks me.
- Israelis’ doors are always open. They meet students from around the world and invite them to join their families when programs are on hiatus or just for Shabbat.
Our lone soldier was in a taxi driven by a Moroccan woman who invited him for dinner when she heard he was a lone soldier. And he went.
- Let them experience having a vehicle stop on the Tel Aviv highway for 10 minutes to let a loose donkey exit. Or sit next to a black man in a leather jacket, jeans, motorcycle boots and state trooper sunglasses with a bandanna on his head who answers his phone “Ma nishma?” (What’s new?) and answers the caller, “Kol b’seder” (It’s all OK).
- All the universities have programs for English speakers. So do many colleges. At the College of Law and Business, graduates receive a B.A. in business administration.
My American grandson and his wife are at Bar-Ilan’s degree course in engineering for English speakers. They pay 10 percent of a quality American college. She’s preparing for medical school in Tzfat, and he’s working through a placement program for a company on the New York Stock Exchange.
Masa Israel is a partnership between the Jewish Agency and the Prime Minister’s Office to sponsor most of the short- and long-term study abroad programs. In the past decade and a half, more than 120,000 students from more than 60 countries have participated.
Masa helps with logistical support, tuition and fees for GYPs and higher education.
A study in 2010 by one of my professors at Harvard, Steven Cohen, concluded, “Participation in a semester or year program in Israel is directly linked to stronger Jewish affiliation and leadership — regardless of the Jewish background growing up.” With subsequent Israel experiences, “the level of Jewish engagement rose significantly” in matters such as:
- Choosing a Jewish spouse.
- Returning to Israel.
- Affiliating with Jewish organizations.
- Taking leadership roles in Jewish life.
- Feeling attachment to Israel.
- Making aliyah (for a small number).
Cohen’s study is confirmed by findings from subsequent studies.
One barrier to the success of these programs is that a small percentage of Diaspora Jews have ever visited Israel. The nightly news helps give velocity to purposely false fulminations and toxic pieties about Israel.
Moreover, they are reluctant to send their children to tour and study. Take particular note of Tuttle-Singer’s personal experiences in coming of age concomitantly with her Israel experiences in Jerusalem and love for the Old City.
GYPs are not the sole answer. Home is where the heart is, so what parents expect of their children begins in the home. Jewish camps and education are critical components of the Jewish community development complex. It strengthens with later Jewish education combined with an Israel experience.
At the least, Diaspora Jews ought to be able to make informed choices (see the AJT’s list of GYPs from Nov 30, 2016, at atlantajewishtimes.timesofisrael.com/filling-israeli-gaps).
Perhaps Dr. Seuss said it best: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”
Businesses and community organizations interested in scheduling speaking engagements this summer with Harold Goldmeier can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.