Interest in Israel Gap Year Grows, Cuts Across the Jewish Spectrum


Globe-Trotters: In many of the gap year programs, students travel extensively to learn about Judaism throughout the world. Above, Bukspan (left) and a fellow gap year student pose with a Muslim man from the Berber village of Arazan during a visit to Morocco.
Globe-Trotters: In many of the gap year programs, students travel extensively to learn about Judaism throughout the world. Above, Bukspan (left) and a fellow gap year student pose with a Muslim man from the Berber village of Arazan during a visit to Morocco.

By E.B. Solomont

Published August 18, 2010, issue of August 27, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

As the daughter of Israeli immigrants, Sharon Bukspan always knew she wanted to spend a year in Israel before attending college, mostly to spend time with family members whom she saw sporadically after her parents moved to the United States.

One night this summer, she was riding the New York City subway with her MCAT tutor, when she was surprised to learn that he, too, spent a gap year in Israel.

Bukspan, a self-described “secular Jew” who values Judaism and Jewish culture, and her tutor, who is Orthodox, reveled in the pervasiveness of their shared experience. “We were like, ‘Wow, everyone has gone to Israel,’” said Bukspan, 21, who is now a senior at Johns Hopkins University. “The only way to explain it is that it has become a phenomenon. It’s just what we do.”

Wrapped: Bukspan tries on a sari during a trip to India.
Wrapped: Bukspan tries on a sari during a trip to India.

Once the pursuit of Orthodox Jewish high school graduates, gap years in Israel have become increasingly popular among Jewish students across the denominational spectrum.

“Now if you’re not Orthodox, you’ve got at least 10 options, if not more,” said Avi Rubel, director of North American operations at Masa, an umbrella group that coordinates yearlong programs in Israel. “You can come and find something and be with kids just like you.”

Last year, 2,332 non-Orthodox students participated in Masa programs, up from 1,798 during the 2006—07 academic year. The number of Orthodox students increased, too, according to Masa’s numbers. In total, 5,572 Orthodox and non-Orthodox students participated in Masa programs last year, up from 4,769 three years earlier.

The cost of the various programs range from a few thousand to over $10,000, and need-based scholarships are offered.

Bukspan, a graduate of the pluralistic Abraham Joshua Heschel School, opted for Kivunim: New Directions, a program started in 2006 by Heschel founder and director Peter Geffen. Students are based in Israel but travel extensively: Bukspan visited Russia and Lithuania, Spain and Morocco, India, Italy, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

“The focus is really to expose its students to what Judaism is beyond the U.S. and Israel,” she said.

Rubel said that the growing number of students spending a year in Israel stems from overall excitement and from interest in taking a gap year. In recent years, admissions directors at Harvard and Princeton universities publicly expressed support for gap-year study, and some students view taking a year off to pursue meaningful activities as a leg up.

“That’s allowed us to grow the field in Israel,” said Rubel, who said that Masa recruits heavily. Besides visiting schools and youth groups, the organization works with college advisers and, for the past four years, has brought college counselors at public, private and parochial schools to Israel. “Masa’s goal is geared around getting people who wouldn’t come otherwise,” he said.

For Avi Gordon, 22, an alumnus of the Conservative movement’s Young Judaea Year Course, spending a gap year in Israel was an option but certainly “not a given.” The Harrisburg, Pa., native went to Young Judaea camps and attended public high school, where the majority of his friends went straight to college after graduation.

Going to Israel “wasn’t the norm where I lived,” said Gordon, who now works as the East Coast campus coordinator for the Israeli advocacy group StandWithUs. He graduated from SUNY Binghamton in May. Spending the year in Israel, he said, “made me realize, I’m so passionate about a country I’m emotionally attached to.”

Freida Gottsegen, an independent educational consultant in Atlanta who went on a Masa familiarization trip in 2009, carefully selects the students she recommends for a gap year. Overall, she agreed that colleges are increasingly embracing gap-year study. But she noted, “Some are just not gap-year students.”

Since her Masa trip, Gottsegen has suggested a gap year in Israel to four students. And while many of her clients in private and public schools are not Orthodox, “there’s so much that Israel has to offer that is nonreligious,” she said. “The pages of the history books are right there, whatever the religious denomination is.”

While benefiting from the overall boon in gap-year popularity, Israel programs are also working to strengthen Jewish identity among students. Like proponents of Jewish summer camp and TAGLIT-Birthright Israel, some say a gap year in Israel goes a long way toward building Jewish identity and creating the next generation of Jewish leaders.

The year gives students “the tools to make decisions” as Jewish adults, said Yossi Garr, director of Native: The College Leadership Program in Israel, where students spend half the year studying in Jerusalem and the other half volunteering around the country. Like Rubel, Garr said his numbers are up. In August he expects nearly 95 students, up from an average of 35 to 40 students several years ago.

“Exactly when the change happened or why it took place, it’s a hard question,” he said. “I think it really came from this realization of how important this was.”

Bukspan, who plans to get her master’s degree and then attend medical school, said she benefited from a program that focused not only on Israel, but also on Jewish life around the world.

Gap years in Israel, she said, are not just part of Orthodox Jewish life. “It’s a part of all Jewish life,” she said. “It’s really an expression of how things have evolved.”

E.B. Solomont is a freelance writer living in St. Louis.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.