Building Jewish Adults: Learnings of a Young Gap Year Program

Teaching teens hands-on construction work is a part of the Jewish gap-year experience: photo courtesy Tivnu: Building Justice.
Teaching teens hands-on construction work is a part of the Jewish gap-year experience: photo courtesy Tivnu: Building Justice.

By Bill Deresiewicz

According to a well-known passage in the Talmud, a father has the following obligations with respect to his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is the firstborn, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to school him in a trade. And one more, say the rabbis: to teach him to swim. Why to swim? Because, they explain, “his life may depend on it” (Kiddushin 29a).

What can we learn from this, not only with respect to parents and children but to all of us? That Judaism is, above all, a practical religion, a religion that is meant to inform every aspect of our daily lives. Judaism teaches us moment-by-moment living, tachlis living. It guides our relationship not only with God but also with the everyday world around us. It helps us to survive and thrive.

That idea lies behind the Tivnu: Building Justice Gap Year Program, the first Jewish gap year program in the United States. When we started Tivnu: Building Justice five years ago, and when we launched the Gap Year two years ago, we thought we were creating a program about integrating Jewish learning and living with concrete, hands-on social justice work. And that is still a crucial part of what we do. The program brings high school graduates aged 17-20 to Portland, Oregon from across the United States and beyond – and also from across the spectrum of Jewish identity and practice – and immerses them in an intensive nine-month experience. They work at a variety of individually tailored direct-service internships (helping at day shelters and programs that provide nutritious meals to homeless adults, creating community gardens in low-income neighborhoods, tutoring at-risk youth), learn construction skills and build affordable housing with Habitat for Humanity, study Jewish sources, and live together in their own pluralistic Jewish household.

We have come to understand that something even more fundamental is happening at the same time. Our young participants are undertaking the essential work of growing up, learning what it means to have an adult relationship with the world – which also means, with other people and themselves.

A simple example. A few weeks ago, we took our midwinter retreat on nearby Mt. Hood, one of a series of outdoor adventures that punctuate the year. Instead of relying on a staff member to put the snow chains on the van, if needed, we had a couple of the participants learn how to do it before we left. When we reached the snow line, they were the ones to take the lead. They were learning how to get along in the physical world, as well as how to take responsibility for themselves. They acquired a practical skill and had the satisfaction of achieving a sense of competence.

A much more complicated example. Before our first cohort arrived in the fall of 2014, we had not anticipated how great a challenge it would be for them to carry out the basic tasks of living together (even with the help of our Residential Advisor). Things like doing the dishes, cleaning the bathroom, keeping the living space reasonably neat – as well as figuring out how to share those responsibilities fairly and how to communicate with one another about their needs and concerns. It took a lot of work, for all of us. They learned a tremendous amount, and we discovered better ways to support them.

This kind of learning is more important than ever, and it is the very best reason for high school graduates to take a gap year before college. As several important recent books have argued, and as many psychologists, teachers, and dean of students offices have long known, young people are arriving on campus with more and more academic skills and fewer and fewer emotional and life skills. They can answer questions for a test, but they are often adrift when it comes to taking care of themselves, advocating for themselves, getting along with others, or making important life decisions.

That is why an increasing number of colleges are urging admitted students to take a gap year, as well as why enrollment in such programs is growing. And that is why Tivnu is committed to helping our participants grow their independence, confidence, and self-reliance. That means helping them learn how to cook for themselves – and experience the fun of doing so. It means expecting them to be on time for work every morning – and enabling them to discover the satisfaction of living up to their commitments. It means setting up those individualized internships, where they become trusted members of the staff at a meals program, women’s shelter, or other program – and build genuine relationships with people in need who are counting on them. It means teaching them how to run a table saw, build a wall, or fix a sink – and to feel the satisfaction of a job well done. And it means supporting their different committees that plan recreational and educational events.

But we have one more reason for wanting to help our participants grow up. We understand that growing up embodies Jewish values, too. When the Talmud tells parents to teach their children Torah, a trade, and how to swim, it is saying that parents need to teach them to be, not just a man or woman, but mensches. People with an ethical relationship to the things and people around them. After all, their lives – and all our lives – depend on it.

Bill Deresiewicz, a board member of Tivnu: Building Justice, is an essayist and critic, a frequent college speaker, and the author of “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite” and the “Way to a Meaningful Life.” He taught English at Yale for ten years and at Columbia for five.