Among the sea of teenagers donning army uniforms, Zoe Eisenberg stood clutching her replica M4 rifle at the gravesite of former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.
The clan sang “Hatikvah” as it celebrated its completion of Marva, a two-month training session designed to give Diaspora Jews a taste of Israeli military life. For the Pikesville native, the mock swear-in ceremony, signifying her “entry” into the Israel Defense Forces, was one of the moments from Young Judaea Year Course that will always stay with her.
“It happened so long ago, but I think about it as if it were just yesterday,” said Eisenberg, who just celebrated her fifth year as an alumna of the Israel-based gap-year program, established in 1956.
The now 23-year-old is just one of the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Americans who leave the comfort of their hometown each year to participate in worldwide gap-year programs, according to the American Gap Association. Although taking a break between high school and college is a relatively new concept in the U.S., the ever-increasing trend is a longtime tradition in the Jewish world.
For those gappers who are members of the tribe, Judaism is an integral part of their identity, making it a natural step to visit the homeland after receiving a high school diploma.
Although these yearlong stints are referred to as “gap years,” participants aren’t taking a year “off” per se, said Tamar Zilbershatz, director of gap and service programs for Masa Israel Journey.
“They’re not stopping their lives,” she said. “It’s an investment in developing who you are and who you want to be, not just Jewishly but personally and professionally. This is the perfect age for students to do a gap year because they’re mature, but they’re still flexible — they’re still figuring out life.”
Masa, an umbrella organization with more than 200 long-term programs in the Jewish state, reported that 91 percent of its alumni felt that temporarily living in Israel is the most effective way to strengthen Diaspora Jews’ connection to the country, according to The Jewish Agency for Israel’s 2015-2016 annual report. And that comes as no surprise to Phyllis Folb, executive director of the American Israel Gap Year Association in California.
Based on her experience organizing the nonprofit’s annual gap-year fair, which hosts more than 50 Israel programs and is the largest of its kind on the West Coast, the Los Angeles resident steadfastly believes that these transformative programs are directly linked to Jewish continuity.
“They help young adults take ownership of their Jewish identity — religiously, culturally and ethnically,” Folb said. “And that’s the key to our future as a people.”
For those looking to jumpstart the next chapter of their Jewish education, joining the laundry list of gappers is a no-brainer. Whether they’re analyzing sacred texts in a well-established yeshiva or milking cows on a kibbutz in the hills of northern Israel, spending a year in the Holy Land has quickly become a rite of passage for scores of young adults.
GAP YEARS BREED SUCCESS
Although some discourage recent high school graduates from becoming gappers — believing they’ll be embarking on a year away from academics — numbers highlight the gap-year phenomenon as a successful endeavor with long-term effects.
Of course, it depends on how the student is spending their gap year. But with Israel’s wide selection of structured programs, integrating rigorous study, volunteer work and more, participants are faced with everyday challenges, ranging from budgeting money to figuring out “how they want to exist in the world,” said Kate Nachman, director of Young Judaea Year Course.
“The opportunity to learn, grow and mature before settling down to the demands of college is immeasurably valuable,” said Nachman, who formally served as deputy director of the program for six years. “Those students lucky enough to get that opportunity are almost universally better off for it.”
To help subsidize the cost of gap-year programs, Masa provides eligible participants with grants from $500 to $10,000, according to The Jewish Agency for Israel. In addition, gappers can seek out other sources, including synagogues, Jewish Federations and some colleges, to fund their Israel experience.
The National Alumni Survey, conducted by the American Gap Association in 2015, reported that 73 percent of participants said their gap year increased their “readiness” for college, and 57 percent said it helped them determine what they wanted to study before they hit the books.
[pullquote]“This is the time to find yourself and be introspective about your future. It ended up being one of the best years of my life.” — Michele Barron of Nativ 10[/pullquote]
And whether they settle a few hundred miles away from home or halfway around the world, gappers tend to have higher GPAs and graduate from university earlier, according to the nonprofit organization.
These year-long programs — where students are thrown out of their comfort zones — also have a significant impact on personal growth. Ninety-eight percent of American gappers said their year helped them develop as a person, and 97 percent said it increased their level of maturity.
The study also reported that Israel ranks second (tied with Ecuador) to the United States as the most common destination for gappers.
From a young age, Avi Schneider was fixed on living in Israel for a year, wedged in between graduating from Jewish day school in 2014 and enrolling at the University of Maryland in 2015. The 21-year-old spent his days as a gapper at Yeshivat Torat Shraga, where he focused on enhancing his Jewish knowledge and spirituality.
“I’m a different person because of it,” he said. “You’re dependent on your family in high school, but in Israel, I was on my own.”
Some American Jews, like Schneider, traveled to Israel prior to their gap year, but others decided to take the plunge without ever having stepped foot in the country, including Michele Barron of Pikesville.
“This was something I needed to do,” she said.
The now 44-year-old uprooted her life in Howard County to participate in the Nativ College Leadership Program from 1990 to 1991. Although steadfast in her decision to raise a Jewish family prior to her gap year, Barron said the 37-year-old program solidified her commitment to leading a Jewish life.
Alongside roughly 30 other recent college graduates, Barron studied at Hebrew University in the fall and spent the remainder of her time in the Negev as a volunteer at Kibbutz Sa’ad. The mother of three hopes that her children will follow in her footsteps after walking across the high school graduation stage.
“This is the time to find yourself and be introspective about your future,” Barron said. “It ended up being one of the best years of my life.”
During the midst of the Persian Gulf War, Barron and a handful of other Nativers flew home for about two months. But every single one of them booked return tickets to Israel and completed their gap year, highlighting the strength of the program and its participants, she said.
The “Life After Nativ” survey, published in May 2017, reported that 86 percent of college-aged alumni would only marry a Jewish spouse — a number that helps put the minds of Jewish community members at ease.
Although the 2010 Baltimore Jewish Community Study, conducted by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, reported that only 20 percent of couples residing in the Greater Baltimore area are intermarried, it emphasizes that the finding is a low percentage in comparison to other cities across the nation.
Intermarriage rates have soared over the last five decades, according to “A Portrait of American Jews” by the Pew Research Center. The 2013 study found that 58 percent of Jews married a partner outside of the faith between 2005 and 2013 in contrast to 17 percent before 1970.
And as opposed to a brief taste of Israel through programs spanning a little over a week, gappers are immersed in Israeli life for a substantial period of time, fostering a strong connection to Jewish involvement and commitment for years to come.
Rebecca Grossman, a University of Maryland alumna, spent 2012 to 2013 studying for the sake of studying at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim, a high- level institution for Orthodox women l ooking to engage in Jewish studies.
“I had the opportunity to figure out how I wanted to live my life Jewishly,” Grossman said. “And that’s something that’s invaluable when you’re thrown into the craziness that is college life.”
ACCLIMATING TO COLLEGE AND BEYOND
Life is simpler in Israel — at least in regard to leading a Jewish life. Gappers have no shortage of ruach-filled Shabbatot, thriving kosher restaurants and excursions to historical sites. However, once they enter Ben Gurion Airport with a one-way ticket back to the States, reality begins to sink in for those once eager- eyed teenagers.
After landing in New York, Beth Steiner of Baltimore County remembered asking a passer-by where she could find an ATM. But instinct kicked in, and the now 37-year-old asked the question in Hebrew, leaving the man puzzled.
“It was a lot harder than I thought it would be — to come back and merge into the regular college culture when I had just been off milking cows on a kibbutz,” said Steiner, who went on Nativ from 1997 to 1998. “You don’t understand reverse culture shock until you experience it firsthand.”
The Boston native quickly realized that a great deal had changed, ranging from the newest trends to old friendships.
“My friends had all these stories about college, and I couldn’t understand what they had experienced and they couldn’t understand what I had experienced,” she said. “It was like we were speaking different languages.”
Although her first semester of college was difficult, it didn’t take long for Steiner to find her niche, eventually leading her to obtain a master’s degree in higher administration and become the director of student activities at Loyola University Maryland.
Moshe Klein, 21, of Silver Spring said his experience at Yeshivat Orayta, where he would study Jewish texts from 8 a.m. to midnight almost every day, helped him develop a strong work ethic. The rising junior said he’s an A/A-plus student at the University of Maryland, whereas he was B/B-plus student in high school.
In addition, Klein said his year of intense study from 2014 to 2015 prepared him for life as a religious Jew in a secular college. No one was telling him to learn with his chavrusah or daven three time a day, forcing him to consider “what it means to be a dedicated Jew.”
“I think I would’ve been more passively Jewish and not as active on campus if it wasn’t for Orayta,” Klein said. “Orayta didn’t change the way I looked at Judaism, but it reaffirmed the things I already thought and gave me a place to ask questions and struggle with my Judaism.”
Johns Hopkins University student Joshua Blustein, 20, said those considering a gap year between high school and college shouldn’t second-guess themselves.
“This is really the only year where you have nothing to worry about,” said Blustein, who studied at Yeshivat Orayta from 2015 to 2016. “It’s now or never.”