I just graduated high school with perfect grades, an acceptance letter to my number one university, and what I thought was a sense of what I wanted to do with my life. Yet, to the surprise of many, I am not attending college this year. While my friends were choosing their classes and buying textbooks, I packed my bags and got on a plane to Israel for a year.
In America, students are expected to go to high school, immediately enroll in college, find a job, and then settle down. That can leave little room for us to explore who we are and what we want from life. When are we supposed to learn about ourselves outside of a classroom? When we have a job and family, and it’s presumed we already know? I believe the best time is when we’re still growing, and when we can afford to spend time traveling and exploring.
When many people hear “gap year,” they unfortunately — and falsely — assume that the person didn’t get into college, has no drive, or just wants to relax and do nothing for a year. Even my dad was originally completely against the idea of a gap year. But these stereotypes couldn’t be further from the truth. I chose to take a year off between high school and college in order to broaden my understanding of the world, myself, and my connection to Israel as a young Jew.
About two years ago, I went on a month-long trip to Israel with my Jewish youth group. We traveled the country and learned all about our history. I fell in love with everything it had to offer. I got off the plane in America with a feeling of homesickness, and I realized I needed to go back.
I am currently on Young Judaea Year Course, a gap year program supported by Masa Israel Journey, The Jewish Agency for Israel, and the Government of Israel, through which I am spending half my year in Jerusalem taking classes about Judaism and Zionism, and the other half of my year in Bat Yam volunteering with local organizations.
In Young Judaea’s words, “Year course isn’t a year off between high school and college — it’s a year on.” This program felt like the perfect fit for me, and, soon after I arrived in Israel two months ago, I was proven right. I may not be attending university, but I am learning more about myself and developing as a person — not just as a student. I have met people from every walk of life with every political and religious affiliation.
I am also experiencing living on my own. I have five roommates and together, we have to make a budget, shop for groceries, cook our meals, clean the apartment, make sure any maintenance issue is dealt with, and go to the doctor’s office a few blocks away when we don’t feel well. All of these are things I wouldn’t have to deal with in a college dorm, and now I am prepared to live in a dorm or apartment with the knowledge and confidence of how to manage everything.
The stigma about gap years must be broken down. We need to allow young people to find out what they want from life, and with the variety of gap year programs out there, every individual has the opportunity to find the one that’s right for them. Spending a year exploring one’s sense of self, one’s goals, one’s reason for being will save money, time, and the stress and pressure of seeking to figure out the same things in college, which often isn’t the right environment to develop such conclusions.
By allowing myself to not rush into college, I will attend university next fall with a better understanding of how the real world operates and how I fit into that world. My journey has only just begun, and I already know the rest of the year will impact who I am for the rest of my life.