The Gap in Gap Year

By Rabbi Michael Unterberg

The good news is: there is plenty of good news.

Students are coming to their gap year in Israel with great enthusiasm and positivity. And that’s just the beginning. While here, they go on tours and hikes to learn about the land. More importantly, they learn sacred texts, travel, shop and wander on their own, giving them a much deeper connection to the land than tourists can achieve. There is no question that the gap year makes Israel a much more real place to them. This not only enriches their love for Israel, but connects them more deeply to Jewish peoplehood and heritage.

And yet…

When they arrive to campuses across the world, they will hear about how and why Israel is a truly terrible place. An oppressive, undemocratic apartheid regime, that inflicts human rights abuses by policy. It isn’t true, but they will hear it over and over again. They love and feel connected to a place that is presented as a crime against humanity by its very existence.

They have been told that the accusations are false. But upon inspection, they find that many specific details of the accusations are true. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs living in the West Bank have no citizenship in any state! Jews are given citizenship by the State as soon as they request it, while gentiles have no such right! Without understanding Zionism as Jewish nationalism, these policies sound racist.

They have grown to love Israel because their community, educators and experiences fostered that love. And now they encounter attacks that seem valid and reasonable. They have not been provided by their community, educators and experiences with a context to understand those accusations. What will they do with this intellectual fission? How will they process the gap between what they have learned in the past, with what they are experiencing now?

A few will turn against Israel. A few will reject these accusations as lies. Unwilling to suffer dissonance, they will simply reject one side of the equation. But most don’t. They were taught that Israel is an integral part of their Jewish identity, and yet they clearly were not educated to understand it or its place in the world. Faced with these accusations on campus and feeling ill equipped, they feel let down by this education. They wonder what else has been distorted or omitted. Cynicism and distrust will reduce the passion that the community has worked so hard to instill. Its this group of confused young people that makes up the majority. We are seeing this happen.

And so, faced with questions and ambivalence, our students develop an arms length love of Israel, which is inexorably linked to the development of an arm’s length passion and commitment to Jewish identity. Not a break, mind you. But we’d be fools to think that the disappointment that occurs when young Jews find that their Israel education was inadequate will not carry over to other aspects of their education. And we’d be fools to think that we can afford for the next generation of Jews to be insecure about their Judaism and unsure about their relationship with Israel. In other words, if we want to strengthen Jewish identity and religious identity and don’t see Israel identity as integral to that, we are in for big trouble.

We must not rely on hikes and tiyulim, even if we bring along a tanach. We can’t assume that the myriad mini-experiences that our students have on gap year will knit together and form a healthy and coherent Zionist narrative. The year spent in Israel is a golden opportunity to address this gap in their education. Its our job as Gap Year educators to work it out with them and prepare them for campus. Anything less is irresponsible.

We need to have the complicated and difficult conversations with our students, and not be deluded into believing that the emotional high the kids are on will sustain them once they are off Israeli soil. Let’s take the time, while they are here to make sure they are prepared for what is coming next. The fact that they are in Israel and developmentally ready makes gap year the ideal time for these conversations.

Let’s get to work.

Rabbi Michael Unterberg is Senior Israel Educator at Jerusalem U.