Next September when many of this year’s high school graduates will be settling into their new dorms to attend their chosen colleges and universities, an increasing number will opt to take a year out before college to see the world, do volunteer work, learn new languages and do adventure travel. Once considered an option for just the wealthy, many students and their parents are considering the “gap” year a perfect opportunity to become more mature and focused. Gap years offer students a chance for growth and new experience and often provide students a chance to develop independence. Parents consider these transition programs a good investment especially those who wonder whether their children are ready for college immediately after high school.
Each year I write an article on interesting Gap Year Programs around the country and sometimes around the world. The term “gap year” originated in England where students typically take a year off before starting college
This year my focus will be on a variety of terrific Gap Year programs, which originate in Israel.
My visit to see the Gap programs in Israel was quite similar to a college tour. I visited Israel with MASA, (journey in Hebrew) an umbrella organization with offices in New York City and Jerusalem, which oversees over 100 programs for students 18-30 in Israel. MASA reaches out to students worldwide and has recently received great interest from American students and their families.
One program, which would appeal to travel lovers, is called Kivunim: New Directions. It involves travel around the world and enables students to gain an understanding of other cultures, religions and worldviews. Every five to six weeks students travel to countries from Morocco to India. Arab-Jewish coexistence and volunteer work is integrated into the program.
International travel is also sponsored by Young Judea , Olami. Three yearlong tracks of Olami explore the connections, which have shaped Israel as it is today:
*The Zionist Revolution (France and Eastern Europe),
*Lost Jewish Communities (Portugal, Uganda, India, south Africa),
*Sephardic Judaism and Zionism (Spain, Holland, Greece, Turkey).
Young Judea also has a yearlong Social Action Olami: Ghana. This integrates Zionism and Jewish values into experiences in both Israel and the developing world to help create lasting change. Students learn leadership skills and techniques in Israel and then travel to Ghana where they practice the Jewish values of tikkun olam—repairing the world. Students return to Israel to continue volunteering and “complete the cycle they have started, Israel and Judaism as the core of social justice, setting an example to the whole world”
Although travel is appealing to many, others prefer volunteering and MASA offers many options in this category. In the city of Beersheva, we visited the Atzmah program located in an urban renewal area just minutes from Ben Gurion University. This program has a modest price tag and attracts both Israelis and students from abroad. Students become part of the community by volunteering in a variety of settings involving working primarily with disadvantaged children. They also learn to live independently within a budget.
The Conservative branch of Judaism sponsors Nativ . It includes university study, volunteering, a kibbutz experience and innovative leadership training. Students can opt to live in a kibbutz or in a modern dormitory setting complete with high-speed internet, private bathrooms and kitchenettes. For their spring semester, students can opt for kibbutz jobs focusing on agriculture, childcare or food preparation. Nativ-ers can also select community service volunteer options i.e. the Magen David Adom (volunteer ambulance Corps), community schools, and working with the mentally and physically disabled. In after-school programming they work with children who live in the immigration absorption centers. This is a particularly unique experience where participants learn first-hand how families adjust to living in a new country.
Tamarim the Netzer Year is a unique ten-month leadership-training program that develops participants’ skills and knowledge necessary to become a leader in the Reform movement. This program recruits its participants from South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Canada, England, the former Soviet Union, Germany, Spain and the U.S.
Other MASA opportunities include volunteering in the IDF (army), medical clinics, dance, business, theater and the arts and almost anything a student can dream about. A new program, which we visited, is Therapeutic Riding, scheduled to begin February 2009. Gap year students who feel comfortable around horses will work with autistic, Add, Adhd youth and adults to assist them in overcoming some of their problems through horseback riding.
The MASA programs go beyond anyone’s imagination and typically include Ulpan, a course of Hebrew study, volunteering and experiencing Israel and travel to other countries. College credit is frequently available and is accepted at universities throughout the U.S. It can be geared to any branch of Judaism, including Orthodox. Visiting these programs convinced me that opportunities abound for Jewish students who want an alternative to attending college immediately after high school. These programs would be a wonderful follow-up for those who have had the opportunity to attend the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education “Israel Study Tour” before their senior year in high school and now desire a significant immersion. As an added incentive, a $2,000 Universal grant is available to all participants.