A graduate of Gross Schechter Day School in Pepper Pike, Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights and @Akiva Hebrew High School in Beachwood, Levinsky postponed starting Yale University in New Haven, Conn., in fall 2010 to spend the school year at Mechinat Beit Yisrael, an educational program for Israeli high-school graduates who defer their army service for a year.
“I had an incredible experience learning about Israeli society and culture in a way that few Americans my age can say that they have, and I became completely fluent in Hebrew,” said Levinsky, who just completed her first year at Yale. She’s back in Israel this summer for an internship at the Israel Museum and to coordinate the Yalies in Israel summer program.
When she was a high-school junior, Levinsky had visited Mechinat Beit Yisrael during a trip to Israel with Write On for Israel, an advocacy and journalism program of The AVI CHAI Foundation, @Akiva and Cleveland Jewish News.
“I remember thinking that the kids at the mechina were doing the coolest thing I’d ever seen my age doing, and I wanted to be part of it,” Levinsky said. “Falling in love with the program, more than anything else, was what motivated me to pursue taking a gap year.”
During her year in Israel, she said, “We lived in a public housing project in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem and spent about half our time volunteering with children in the neighborhood and half our time studying. We also took three trips around the country – one to the north, one to the south and one to the West Bank. We lived together as a group and did everything together, from cooking our meals, to making decisions about what topics we wanted to study.”
Levinsky, who will return for her second year at Yale this fall, is one of several Cleveland-area teens who have found fulfilling “gap-year” opportunities in Israel and elsewhere before starting college. “If you’re considering taking a gap year, you should do it,” Levinsky advises others. “I can’t think of anyone I know at school who has regretted taking a gap year, but I have so many friends who wish they had. But choosing the right program is crucial.”
Opportunities for a gap year in Israel
abound, according to Masa Israel Journey regional coordinator Mirit Balkan at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. Masa (Hebrew for “journey”) is an umbrella organization with more than 200 different programs that involve study, travel and volunteer work in Israel.
The inspiration for Masa, which started in 2003, came from former prime minister Ariel Sharon, Balkan said. “He said every Jew in the Diaspora needs to spend an immersive year in Israel.
“Today, we see more and more kids going on a gap year,” said Balkan, an Israeli who lives in Shaker Heights with her husband Yaron and children Ori, 6, and Romi, 4. “The gap year is a win-win. Students are having fun and relaxing, and they are more motivated to go to college. Parents are happy because the experience strengthens their Jewish identity.”
After spending a gap year in Israel, 79% of students say that being Jewish is very important to them, and 66% say they want to marry someone Jewish, Balkan said. The program also inspires contributing to the community.
Students earn 12 to 15 credits during their Masa gap year and have a multi-cultural experience. Masa gives $1,000, and different programs offer ways to help financially. All Masa programs provide accommodations.
“I hear more businesses say, given two similar resumes, they’d prefer the one with the gap year,” Balkan said.
Balkan also referred to Harvard University’s positive view of the gap year. The college of admissions has recommended a gap-year experience for 40 years, according to the university’s website, which continues: “Perhaps the best way of all to get the full benefit of a ‘time-off’ is to postpone entrance to college for a year … Normally a total of about 50 to 70 students defer college until the next year. The results have been uniformly positive.”