Discovering Selflessness in a ‘Selfish Gap-Year’


I had looked forward to my year in seminary with great anticipation. Everyone I encountered informed me that my “gap year” would consist of one life-altering experience after another and that I had to make the most of every opportunity. But I was a little anxious about my ability to truly maximize the year.

After all, I had only a few short months to achieve so many important things. In addition to increasing my Torah knowledge and enhancing my spirituality, I wanted to volunteer, to give of myself and make an impact on others.  And even though an incredible opportunity to volunteer with special needs children fell into my lap, I wasn’t sure if I could juggle everything.

To my great surprise, however, the volunteering opportunity was actually the best thing that could have happened to my year. It opened my eyes to the depth and beauty of life.

So, what was this transformative volunteering program?

While serving as a counselor at Camp Migdal, a camp for children and teenagers with special needs, last summer, I was approached by the assistant director, Perri Binet, with a request. During her gap year many years earlier, Perri had started a unique volunteering initiative with ALEH, Israel’s largest network of facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities, whereby seminary students would visit ALEH’s Jerusalem facility every night to say Shema with the kids and put them to bed (like all other Jewish children). Perri was hoping that I would take over the Sweet Dreams program for the year.

At first, I didn’t know what to say.  I was concerned about how I could possibly fit this into my already packed schedule, and the added responsibility made me anxious.  But the program touched my heart, and I happily agreed.

Thanks to my friends in different schools around Jerusalem it didn’t take too long to complete the weekly roster.  Every night, the designated group of girls would spend 45 minutes going from room to room singing Shema and other lullabies and dispensing countless hugs and kisses.

Though our weekly visits were short, my interactions with the ALEH kids and staff impacted me tremendously.  It was amazing to be surrounded by such warmth, to realize that every person who entered ALEH Jerusalem would be praised and appreciated both as individuals and for the great value that they added to the group, even if that value added was seemingly unconventional.  Additionally, it was inspiring to see that every accomplishment, no matter how small, would be celebrated as a major milestone.

All too often, it is the fear of failure that prevents us from accomplishing our goals.

In my case, a step toward the unknown allowed me to impact the lives of so many beautiful Jewish children and, in turn, provided me with the tools to not only maximize my year but elevate my outlook on life. A cause for celebration, indeed.

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