Last month Princeton University announced plans for a year-abroad program to enable students to work overseas before ever setting foot on the college campus. The idea, according to the university’s president, is to give students an international perspective while adding maturity, giving them a break from academic pressures and “cleansing the palate of high school.” Those in favor of the program believe it will provide students with the opportunity to discover themselves and the world before they enter college.
Upon hearing the news, I could not help feeling amused that the Ivy League world is just beginning to pick up on a longstanding tradition in the Jewish community. For decades, Jewish parents have been sending their children to Israel for a year between high school and college.
Doing so is by no means a one-size-fits-all proposition. Many recent graduates take the opportunity to study Torah at a yeshiva or seminary, unfettered by the concerns that surrounded them in high school and that will no doubt reappear in college. Some attend an Israeli college program for a year, including Jewish studies among their classes. Others work on a kibbutz or do army service.
What all of these options have in common is that they give Jewish teens the unparalleled opportunity to connect with their Judaism.
As far as yeshiva study goes, the rabbinic dictum is well known: There is no Torah like the Torah of Israel (Bereishis Rabbah 16:4). Among yeshivas, there are a wide variety of options, for teens of all backgrounds and previous levels of education. Many yeshivas also offer joint year-abroad options with schools such as Yeshiva University and Touro College, which assists those concerned with college credits and the possibility of financial assistance.
Whether a student chooses to learn, study or volunteer in Israel, he or she cannot help but be affected by the holiness that permeates the land, the air and the people of Israel.
While encouraging high school graduates to spend a year abroad only seems to become newsworthy once Princeton announces plans to create such a program, it seems that the Ivy League is merely waking up and acknowledging what we’ve been saying all along: A year of new experiences abroad following high school gives you a new mind.
For today’s Jewish students a year in Israel can wield boundless potential. The opportunity to fully commit oneself to learning in Israel can awaken the soul of a teen. Indeed, many return to the United States with a new zeal for formerly passionless rote motions, such as davening or laying tefillin, not to mention a fervent enthusiasm students for Israel advocacy.
If anyone ever questioned the objective educational value of the experience, the independent confirmation of Princeton’s plans should lay that concern to rest. This effort by Princeton should serve as an impetus to redouble our community’s efforts to encourage our youth to take advantage of a year abroad in Israel.
Rabbi Steven Burg is international director of NCSY and national director of program development for the Orthodox Union.