After graduating high school, i spent a year studying at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, situated just outside of Tel-Aviv. Gap years were not yet de rigeur, and it took a little bit of convincing before my parents sanctioned the trip. Cost was of course a concern, as was academic recognition by a Canadian university upon my return. Ultimately, the school accepted Canadian dollars on par with the Greenback (this when it was 67 cents to the dollar) and I earned a year and a half of academic credit in one year of study.
Safety never came up in our conversations pre-trip. Yet, when the second intifada began three weeks after my arrival and grew from stone throwing to shootings to high casualty bombings, their concern for my safety legitimately grew by the day.
I had only been in Israel once before, as a 17 year-old participant in a highly structured United Synagogue Youth summer program. Soon thereafter, I was a high school graduate living in Israel with the sole safety instruction from the program’s administrators of “if you leave the country, we’d appreciate you telling us”. We were free to go where we wanted, when we wanted.
It was a transformative experience. Of course, there was the personal growth towards adulthood and responsible independence (we had to cook our own meals), but more importantly, I was able to see the length and breadth of Israel on my terms. I volunteered on a kibbutz (mostly working in a factory that bred and exported bees internationally). I solicited and received invitations to Shabbat and holiday dinners in the homes of the frum and famous. I conversed with bus drivers (and a bartender or two). I learned the hard way while grocery shopping for chicken in the ultra-Orthodox community of B’nei Brak that לבן בשר) literally “white meat”) does not mean in Israel what it means here (hint: it oinks). It was during that year that Israel felt like home.
This year, three Beth Tzedec members are spending gap years in Israel. Maxwell Charlat is learning at Yeshivat Lev Hatorah in Ramat Beit Shemesh; Emma Friedman is studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem; and Max Librach is participating in the Conservative Movement’s Nativ program combining study and volunteer work. Other members will be learning at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and other medium- to long-term programs in Israel. There are scores of exciting opportunities for students in high school, university and graduate schools, as well as adults, to learn, volunteer and intern in Israel. They range from secular to Orthodox (including a few wonderful Conservative movement-affiliated programs). Many can be discovered at www.masaisrael.org.
When I travel to Israel at the end of January as part of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative of the Shalom Hartman Institute, I hope to get together with Beth Tzedec members and hear about their experiences. Rav Baruch and our Director of Education and Family Programming Daniel Silverman will also be in Israel this winter and spring for personal and professional purposes.
As I write this article, it continues to be a very
difficult time in Israel. I know that the violence of the
second intifada that I lived through continues to inform
my thoughts on Israel. I know that that violence made my
gap year a difficult one for my parents. May there be
peace speedily in ours, and in the meantime, may its
absence not impinge upon the learning and love that our
members seek to find during their time in Israel.