Filling the gap: students take years off in Israel

By
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

When Sara Glick ’10 arrived on College Hill freshman year, it was not her first time living away from home. After graduating from high school, Glick spent a year in Israel to learn more about her Jewish heritage.

“I had been in school for 12 years, and then I was going in for another four,” Glick said. “It was good to have a break.”

Many students who take so-called “gap years” choose to spend the time in Israel to explore their cultural roots, while others seek to gain a deeper connection with the country itself. “People ­­that spend time in Israel feel much more connected with their Jewish identity,” said Yossi Knafo, Israel Fellow at Brown/RISD Hillel.

“Israel is so a part of your life all of the time,” Knafo said. “You hear it mentioned about 100 times in a service in synagogue.”

For their years abroad, students can choose from a wide variety of programs and projects, including learning Hebrew, volunteering in schools and working on farming collectives.

Taking a gap year, Glick said, offered her a break from a fast-track culture which propels young adults from high school to college, followed immediately by work or graduate school. “Israeli society is very different than American society,” she said. “In Israel, people take a lot of time to just travel and just discover themselves.”

Glick spent the first semester taking classes at Hebrew University and the second semester volunteering in a school.

“The kids (at the school) were crazy,” Glick said. “They would yell at the teacher, calling her fat and ugly. I got really good at saying, ‘Don’t hit him.'”

Most gap-year programs are divided into two semesters like Glick’s was. Most gap-year programs are also highly structured. “Once I got there, I found that I could not do certain things and go certain places, and that was really annoying,” Glick said.

Jenna Zeigen ’12 worked on a farming collective for the first half of her gap year and then volunteered in a high school for the second half. The program Zeigen participated in was smaller than most, with only 48 other students.

“We had this closeness that I just cannot describe,” Zeigen said, that was “beyond the bond of friendship.”

Harry Reis ’11, president of Brown Students for Israel, spent the first semester of his gap year learning Hebrew in Jerusalem. During his second semester he volunteered in an ambulance and in an “absorption center” that provided housing to recent immigrants.

“It was a very important time to find myself and devote my time to exploration and personal growth and friendships without the obligations of being in school,” Reis said.

Some students said they found it difficult to describe their experiences in Israel when people asked them.

“It is just a question that you can’t answer, because it is just this comprehensive experience,” Zeigen said. “It is like asking what the first year of college is like.”

Adjusting to Brown was difficult at first for Glick, who – like many gap-year students – entered college a year older than most of her fellow classmates.

“The first week before classes was hard. I felt a little bit different than the other freshmen who had just come out of high school,” she said. “But then once classes started, I felt like everyone else.”

“I think it was one of the best decisions I could have made for myself,” Zeigen said. “I’m definitely more outgoing since going on the program.”