Posted February 3rd, 2008
By John B. Boshoven, President of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling
I worry when a student comes to me and announces, "I am going to take a year off before college" unless the student has a definite plan for the year. Studies and empirical evidence highlight the virtues of "gap years" with programs that are organized, focused, and goal oriented. Rather than calling this year a "year off," I prefer to call it a "year on.”
Masa (meaning journey) Israel and the Avi Chai Foundation generously sponsored a recent mission to Israel for a group of national college counselors. We visited five of Israel's seven universities, several "gap-year" programs, and a few yeshivot.
The mission inspired me to recommend that students consider not rushing off to college and that they take more time to know themselves and to experience another culture. Colleges are happy to defer that first year of college if the student has a productive goal and does not matriculate to another college in that year.
The students that we met in Israel were passionate about their "gap year" experiences. From community service to the classroom, each one of them told a compelling story of young adult adventure within the security of a supervised program.
The first program we visited was Young Judaea's Year Course that combines experiential opportunities through travel, volunteer work throughout the country, and an academic component. They also feature a similar program for Orthodox students called Shalem. From the halls of their brand new headquarters and youth hostel, a student told me, "It's a chance for me to grow up; I think I'll be a more focused college student." Another one smiled and said, "It has already helped me to be even more sure of what I want to do."
The Nativ (meaning path) Program, associated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, also features a supervised and balanced program that combines academics at Hebrew University or yeshiva study, and community service or kibbutz volunteerism. The students that we met raved about their experiences. One said, "I'll never have or will take this chance again. Some say they will do it later, but college and career life have a way of dominating your choices. This experience is helping me start the rest of my life." Another student said it was "a great way to find out who I am. Israel is a cool country to be in when you're 19!"
The Carmel Program at Haifa University is connected to the Leo Baeck High School and Educational Center and the Lokey International Academy of Jewish Studies; it is affiliated with the Reform Movement. Their three-tiered emphasis combines academic study at the university, a beit midrash (prayer, study and leadership) component, and a close-knit community living in dorms together and community volunteering. Carmel is associated with NFTY and seeks to bring together committed and mature Jewish students who seek to be Jewish leaders.
The Rimon Music Experience offers a creative alternative for "gap year" students. As Israel's largest independent professional music school, Rimon offers majors in composition and arranging, film scoring, song writing, jazz and general vocal and instrumental performance, music production, and engineering. Beginning with ulpan and integrating community service through the arts, students from all around the world come and study for a year with some of Israel’s finest artists.
Israel hosts many yeshivot, or religious schools. We were impressed by Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, located in a modest Jerusalem suburb. This simple facility was filled with young men that were immersed in deep and loud study as we arrived at 9 PM. They had been at it since 8 o'clock that morning, and one young man smiled when we wondered about his long days and weeks, as he said, "It does take discipline to be a good student."
Another student raved about her experiences studying at Midreshet HaRova in the Old City of Jerusalem. She beamed, "This is such an enriching experience. I talk to my friends at college, and I am growing in such different and richer ways. They seem the same and uninspired, whereas I am becoming a whole and deeper person."
And still another student at the Workshop for Habonim Dror, a Zionist, socialist youth movement, finds herself, "learning to think, argue, wonder and work in a community where all things are in common. Sometimes it's hard, but we are growing so deep and our conversations are so meaningful...I'm almost worried that college will feel more superficial next year."
I am "bursting" with information about many more of the programs we visited. Israel has many opportunities for study and service. A complete listing is available at masaisrael.org. As a counselor and as a father, I would consider taking the sage advice of a 17 year old, "what's the race; college will be there when I'm ready."
John B. Boshoven, M. A., M.S.W., L.P.C., is the President of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling (MACAC). He serves as the Director of College Counseling at the Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit in West Bloomfield, the Counselor for Continuing Education at Community High School in Ann Arbor, and has a private college counseling practice.