I recently led a periodic outside review of the Young Judaea Year Course, the flagship gap-year non-yeshiva program for American teenagers. I discovered a striking but not surprising anomaly. Although most participants describe this year between high school and college as a “miracle,” “magical,” the best year of my life,” few American Jews bother attending. Only 400 to 600 non-Orthodox American Jews per year choose to spend a year living in Israel after high school. With all the anxiety about Israel’s standing on college campuses and the next generation’s Jewish identity, parents are overlooking an obvious solution to the twin problems.
A great gap-year in Israel provides many payoffs. Universities are encouraging students to defer admission for a year, because students who take time off often arrive on campus more settled and more mature than most freshmen. Good gap-year programs understand this is a complicated transition year, wherein the participants are both post-high school — needing some supervision — and pre-college — meaning ready for freedom, too. Striking that balance in a safe, comfortable but exciting setting does wonders for young adults.
After I spent my gap year in Israel, through Young Judea, I arrived in university more seasoned and serious. I had already lived independently and knew how to budget responsibly, do my own laundry and look out for myself and my friends. Although I attended classes in Israel — and many programs offer college credits — the mix of the academic and the experiential made me then primed to plunge into the academic studies on campus.
Clearly, we are not just talking about maturing in a random, safe, comfortable or exciting setting, we are talking about Israel. Spending a year in Israel has been a constructive rite of passage for thousands of Jewish kids for decades. It allows them, as they leave their homes, to embrace their tradition and homeland on their own terms. The sociologist Robert Bellah lamented that modern America’s maturation process often entails cutting oneself from one’s family, one’s traditions, one’s anchors. Spending time in Israel — a sister democracy which is traditional, family-oriented, and rooted — challenges young Jews to think about their identities, and recalibrate them in ways that help resist the moral anarchy and identity nihilism epidemic on college campuses.
Students who attend college after a year in Israel have a sophisticated, multidimensional view of Israel. They understand Israel as a living, breathing country, in all its complexity. They are less likely to panic when faced with the politically correct prejudice that targets Israel on many campuses — and in too many Middle East courses. They not only have the seasoning to laugh off the ridiculous caricatures of Israel as racist or practicing South African-style apartheid, which was race-based and not connected to a nationalist conflict, but they also have the tools and motivation to become campus leaders in their Jewish and Zionist communities.
Many young Jews I meet are overwhelmed by the tremendous pressure their parents and teachers impose to succeed academically to get into the right college, and to get the right job to make enough money. It pains me that Jewish students often associate this pressure with American Judaism — and that many young Jews have absorbed that message to succeed more than the more important message to live a good life. More parents need to instill in their children Jewish ambitions, Jewish horizons, Jewish dreams, not just dreams of American-style success. Encouraging their children to take that year in Israel, to postpone college for a year (for those who are going), can help reorient the Jewish community from materialism and careerism to spirituality and caring.
Three decades ago, Orthodox American Jews started sending their high school graduates en masse for a year or two of yeshiva in Israel. This now standard ritual has solidified thousands of young Jews before entering the confusing world of American college life.
More recently, breakthrough programs like Birthright Israel and MASA have proved just how valuable Israel experiences can be in identity-formation. The Zionist prescription for alienated Jewry works — Israel and American Jewry both benefit when American Jewish kids engage Israel fully, intensely, constructively. With the Jewish Agency’s new strategic vision putting Israel front and center in Jewish identity-building worldwide, it is time for American Jewish parents to stop grousing, stop worrying — and start encouraging their children to begin their adult post-high school lives with positive, inspiring transformational gap year in Israel programs.
As I travel around North America, I am often asked, in worried tones, “What about the students?” We should start asking, “What about their parents?” — what are they doing to ensure not only a strong Jewish communal future, but happy, satisfying, values-rich lives for their children? Making a gap year in Israel as routine a step as a bar mitzvah and a high school graduation could revolutionize the Jewish future, in Israel and America as well.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history.