Helene Zinckgraf, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Delaware, didn’t go straight to college after graduating from Morristown High School.
Instead, she spent the academic year in Israel, partly on Kibbutz Ketura in the southern part of Israel and partly in Bat Yam outside Tel Aviv volunteering and taking classes.
“I grew so much,” she said. “I think the most beneficial thing an 18-year-old can do is to go experience the world and another culture and figure out the language gaps and the cultural barriers. It gives you a new mindset and makes you a stronger person. You’ve been in school for 15 years. It’s good to take a step back.”
She also thinks that Israel, in particular, is a good place to spend the “gap year.”
“The second I got there, I felt at home,” said Zinckgraf. “I always felt safe and welcome. And every day we saw something new or met someone new or did something inspiring. I learned so much about the world and myself.”
The gap year in Israel, long a rite of passage for Orthodox teens, has evolved into an increasingly popular choice for Jews from other denominations.
Since 2008, 1,016 local teens have participated in religious gap year programs through MASA Israel Journey, while 219 have participated in non-Orthodox gap year programs, according to Allison Green, marketing and communications coordinator for MASA.
MASA, a joint project of the government of Israel, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Jewish Federations of North America, lists 152 gap year programs on its website. They range from Aardvark International, which combines travel to eight different countries including Israel, to Young Judaea Year Course, which combines touring and studying in Israel with choices of academic and vocational tracks.
The gap year is also growing in popularity among non-Jewish teens. According to a recent New York Times blog, enrollment in such programs grew 27 percent from 2012 to 2013 alone. And top colleges, including Harvard and Yale, on their websites are beginning to encourage students to take a year between high school and college.
For Orthodox students, for whom a year or more at an Israel-based yeshiva was the traditional route, choices have broadened. According to Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of school at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, “Approximately 80 percent of our students, on a consistent basis, dedicate a year of study in Israel after graduation. Lately we are seeing a more consistent stream of students volunteering for the Israel Defense Forces; some get inducted after a year of study in yeshiva and some serve for a full three years.”
The majority of Kushner kids on gap year programs enroll in yeshiva or seminary programs. However, “Hybrid programs that combine hesed (community service) or other activities appeal to some of our students,” said Rubin. “A few students participate in non-yeshiva/seminary programs. Some continue the studies in Israel in universities.”
'It pushed me'
Avi Kessler of Caldwell, who graduated from Golda Och Academy in West Orange in 2013, said it was practically foreordained that he would go on Young Judaea Year Course, a popular choice for graduates of Conservative day schools.
“My family all did it: my sister, my mom, two aunts. It’s kind of a family thing,” he said. “I knew I was doing it since I was four or five years old.” And he wasn’t worried at all about being at a disadvantage when he would start college a year “late.”
“College can wait a year for you,” he said. And if he hadn’t chosen to do the program, “I wouldn’t have been as prepared as I was,” he said, pointing to skills he gained in time management and budgeting. Doing the Young Judaea program “pushed me to be more independent. If I wanted to go somewhere, I had to look up the bus schedule and the hiking trails. My parents weren’t going to say, ‘You’ll go here and do this for the weekend.’”
Some research bears this out: According to a study by Bob Clagett, former dean of admissions at Middlebury College in Vermont, students who took a gap year outperformed college peers who entered with similar academic backgrounds.
Despite the growing popularity, however, even among those students for whom a year in Israel seems predetermined, it doesn’t always happen. Jake Rothenberg of Maplewood, now a junior at the University of Michigan, attended Young Judaea summer camps like his two older sisters. Like them, he went on Young Judaea’s summer program in Israel after his junior year in high school. Like them, he had been to Israel countless times over the course of his life to visit the family’s many relatives who live there.
But when the time came, he decided he’d rather go straight to college.
“I did think about going, but not too much,” he said. “A decent proportion of my camp friends were going, but by September of my senior year, I realized I wanted to go to college. I felt like I would miss out if I didn’t go the first year — like I would be behind, especially spending a year with so little academic work and then being blasted with papers and exams. I worried I wouldn’t be prepared. Something about college just seemed more exciting to me.”
Although during the initial period of adjustment his first semester, he acknowledged having feelings of regret and envy, Rothenberg said, but, he added, “As soon as I started to find my niche, I didn’t regret it at all.” And now, looking back, he said, “I think a year abroad could be great for learning, but if I had done it, I wouldn’t go to Israel. That wouldn’t get me out of my bubble, since I’ve been there so much already.”
Initially, Helene Zinckgraf wasn’t sure gap year was right for her either. But her brother’s girlfriend, Rachel, who had done a gap year program through Young Judaea, came back raving about it.
“I thought it sounded awesome, but I still felt I needed to go straight to college,” Zinckgraf said. “I really liked the idea of going to Israel for a year, but I didn’t think it was realistic. Rachel was the only person I knew who had gone. I thought, ‘This is just not something people do.’ I felt intimidated and felt I should go the normal route.”
So she did — at first. She went through the college application process, got accepted to several schools, enrolled in the one of her choice, and attended a one-day new student orientation at the University of Delaware in June.
But, she said, “I couldn’t get that Israel program off my mind. Something at orientation made me realize I wasn’t ready for college. It was only one day, but I just wasn’t ready.
“I realized I wanted to have a really cool experience before I started college, said Zinckgraf; it was the orientation, in the end, that “made me want to spend a year in Israel.” One week later, she deferred her college acceptance.
While Kessler will receive almost a full year of credits for the classes he took, Zinckgraf did not. She watched all her friends graduate college last spring, while she knew she’d have another year of school. But she has no regrets.
“I gained so much from that year,” she said. Still, she acknowledged, “Arriving at college was hard.” She felt a year older than the other new freshmen, who, she said, “had just left home yesterday. We were on different wavelengths.”
But she eventually settled in and now realizes “all my friends had hard first semesters too. It’s just a hard adjustment. At least I could keep reliving some of the awesome moments of the previous year when I felt down.”
She added, “I tell all my cousins and family and friends to take a gap year. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Coverage of youth and higher education made possible by a gift to the Friends of NJJN Fund from the Florin Family Foundation.