A recent graduate reflects on why he chose to spend a gap year in Israel, and what he’s gained from the experience.
We hear that you are finishing up your gap year after graduating from Catlin Gabel. Can you share a bit about why you decided to take a gap year and your experience?
Initially, I planned to attend college at Occidental. I was hoping for my freshman year of college to be that beautiful on campus experience and not an online school. At the beginning of this pandemic, back in April 2020, I saw everything slow down and people seemed like they were stuck in their tracks. I decided to actually do something really meaningful and take advantage of this year.
I wanted to pursue my desire to experiment with a lifestyle of living in another country. I looked at locations that would allow me to travel to another country and provide a unique abroad experience. Israel seemed like a great place, especially after hearing from my uncle about a program that he did when he was 19, called Young Judea Year Course. It is a 9-month program in Israel, where my time was split between community service and academics. This program was especially large this year as there were around 130 kids in the program from the United States, England, Scotland and Holland.
I began my year-long course in Tel Aviv, which is this vibrant modern city on the coastline and I lived in an apartment with 14 boys. Each person in the program immersed themselves in the community through some sort of volunteer activity five days per week. I chose to work in an Israeli daycare located in Yafo, taking care of Israeli kids ages 9-12. Daycares are common throughout Israel and are normally situated in neighborhoods that are poor and are an integral part of the community. Yafo is a special part of the country because, unlike most of Israel, there is a huge Ethiopian and Arab presence, and there are plenty of Muslims and Christians that are members of the community.
During those 4 months, my days were filled with making food for the kids, doing art projects and playing soccer with them. I did not speak very good Hebrew so I helped them with math. But, really what I enjoyed doing was teaching the kids some English and while they taught me some Hebrew. I feel like I made a lasting impact on these kids.
Currently, I’m living on a college campus right outside of Jerusalem. In addition to living with my entire program, we also live with a platoon of IDF soldiers and a number of Latin Americans. The goal of the last semester was service, and the goal of this semester is education. The classes we got to choose from are amazing. We are learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli history, Zionism and taking electives such as Holocaust studies and Hike Israel, where we go on a different hike every week and learn about the wildlife, energy conservation, and environmental concerns.
What are your plans for the last three weeks of your program before flying back home to Portland?
This week of the program is called Israel Today, where every day we go to a different place in Israel to not only explore and celebrate some of the amazing things that Israel has to offer, but also shed light on some of the darker parts and some of the questionable actions of the Israeli Government and learn about people who are marginalized. For example, yesterday I went to Yerucham, a city in Southern Israel’s Negev region. We listened to two men speak about their experiences of being encouraged to come to Israel so they could achieve success. But when they finally arrived, instead of being sent to beautiful Tel Aviv that was established, they were actually sent to a random plot of land in the desert. This week has been super eye-opening. After this week, we have one more week of classes and then one week of trips like kayaking on the Jordan River and a boat tour of the Mediterranean.
In reflecting on this past year, what have you learned about yourself and the world around you?
This first thing that comes to my mind revolves around kindness and that kindness goes a really long way. And this is kind of a broad statement, but when I think about all the times, especially at the beginning of living in Israel, where I didn’t speak Hebrew, but needed to know how to get on the right bus to go to my daycare or I needed to talk to the counselors at the daycare about how to communicate with these little kids, kindness mattered.
Just recently during one of our breaks, I went on a long hiking trip with a couple of friends. We underestimated the length and the difficulty of the trail and didn’t have the best gear. One of the days, we were at our breaking point. Without water, we stopped at this communal farm and knocked on this random Israeli’s door. They happily took us in, fed us, let us a shower and gave us a warm place to sleep. And that happened because we were kind and grateful during our trip. This is something that I knew was important, but when you’re living in a place where you don’t know the language and aren't familiar with the culture, approaching a situation with kindness goes a long way.
Another lesson I want to share is about living in the moment and being present. So there are two things I want to say about that. First of all, as soon as we entered the country of Israel at the very beginning of the program, we had to quarantine for 14 days. For a while I was in a tiny room with five other kids so that was a tough part about living in Israel. But after that we figured that would never have to go through that again.
Then, about 6 months later, a good amount of the program tested positive for Covid-19 and we had to go into another quarantine for 14 days. Then I had extra quarantine for a couple more days because I tested positive. Now when I'm out having a good time and traveling, I have to be grateful and not take experiences for granted, because I know what those quarantines are like. Israel is opening up after Covid, so for my last 3 weeks, I plan to really live in the moment and enjoy the rest of my trip.
Is there anything you would like to say to graduating seniors who might be considering a gap year?
I originally didn’t think I was going to take a gap year, but it's been the best year of my life, and if you have the opportunity to take a gap year, please take it. There is not another time in your life when you can live life on a gap year with all of the freedom but not that much responsibility. Your will grow a lot as an adult and I definitely feel a lot more prepared and more solid and myself before coming to college. Going into Occidental this coming fall, instead of focusing so much about breaking into a new social environment or figuring out what it’s like to live on my own I can spend that energy focusing on school.
One thing that I learned from taking a gap year is that I have been faced with a lot of opportunities, such as being invited to shabbat dinner with an Israeli family. At first it can feel uncomfortable and overwhelming, as it isn’t always easy. Take the opportunity and lean into the discomfort because not only will you grow, but you could also have a lot of fun.