Way back when, I spent my junior year of college in Israel. I’d taken a rest from my albeit-beloved English major so I could study other subjects, explore new terrain, and gain perspective on my future. However, my experience should not be confused with a gap year, the trending timeout between high school and college.
Like many of my peers, I traveled before my return to the U.S. In England, I strolled where Dickens and Shakespeare once tread and shopped for used classics in the bookstalls. But my favorite souvenir was the phrase “Mind the Gap,” which cautions Underground riders about the precarious space between the train door and the station platform. I appreciated the kindness in the phrase (take note NJ Transit) and how easily you could apply it to other circumstances.
In fact, the words have been running through my head in a constant loop for weeks. You see, my middle son just left for his gap year in Israel, making “Mind the Gap” the perfect tagline for this juncture in our lives.
Gap years are often encouraged in the academic world. Yet they aren’t one-size-fits-all and they don’t suit everyone. Still, many students benefit from the opportunity — a luxury, to be sure — to engage in experiential learning, to travel, or to volunteer, all with an eye toward honing their self-awareness before resuming formal study where they left off.
My son, like many other young men and women who attend Jewish high schools, will spend his gap year studying in yeshiva, striving to grow spiritually. But anyone who has dropped a recent graduate off somewhere this season — whether at the freshman dorm on a college campus or at an airport departure gate — likely feels as I do. Our children have flown the nest, in some cases literally, resulting in the pang of a sudden gap in our homes.
I notice the absence most at the Shabbat table and when I ask this child to give me a hand with something, forgetting he’s thousands of miles away. And yet, I’m aware this paradigm shift in our family life is a privilege. We raise our offspring in order to let them go. As much as I miss my son, I know it’s a blessed kind of missing. Each morning, I thank God he is healthy enough in all meanings of the word to be that far away from us for so long.
Yet we, the adults left behind, rarely get that kind of freedom to push pause on our obligations for a yearlong timeout. Instead, my husband and I recently headed to the Jersey Shore, where we enjoyed the condensed version of the gap year experience in an afternoon. It was a break, a change of scenery, a chance to gain perspective, and a window in which to grow spirituality. Plus, there were souvenirs.
The ocean is humbling, its ebb and flow a reminder of our insignificance in God’s universe. As we stood on the shoreline just weeks before Rosh HaShanah, the waves crashing at our feet, we felt something shift. The inevitability of change, of time passing from one year into the next, was writ in the sea air. It seemed right to look deep within ourselves in that moment of serenity and self-awareness to make a personal reckoning.
Scientists call the inner calm we experience at the beach “blue space,” a result of the hypnotic effect of the ocean on our brains. I’m inclined to believe it’s more the impact on our souls that really matters. It’s as if the ocean enters us, helping us to grow spiritually. All I wanted then was to hold tight to that sensation, to let it carry me through the season of atonement and the year ahead.
Meanwhile, I gathered the shells I’d collected. The ones that catch my eye are often incomplete, either cracked or broken. But they are so smoothed down at the edges by the water and so beautiful in their imperfection, it’s as if they were created that way. I like to imagine their journey from sea to shore — to understand how they came to be what they are, to let their stories fill in what they are missing.
When the sun began its colorful descent, I smiled with a new understanding of why we humans have such a deep connection with the ocean and why I’m so drawn to shell collecting. And I felt ready to embrace what’s required of us this Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and even more grateful that my son has been blessed to live a gap year across the Atlantic. For it is precisely in our gaps where we find the room we need to grow, and in our stories that we become whole.
Merri Ukraincik of Edison is a regular contributor to NJJN. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.