Phyllis Folb has been described as the go-to guru of Israel gap-year experiences. Of her 2020 book, “Find Your Right Direction: The Israel Gap Year Guide,” Aardvark Israel Programs’ Admissions Director Simon Cohen wrote, “Having been to over 20 countries on five continents to promote Israel gap year programs, I can safely say that Phyllis Folb herself is the ultimate Israel gap year program resource.”
Folb spent 30 years as a Los Angeles-based PR professional specializing in arts, education and Jewish organizations. While working as a college counselor at a Jewish day school, she found herself increasingly encouraging students to consider the Israel gap year experience, which ultimately led to a job as an Israel counselor. In that role, she organized what would become the largest Israel program fair on the West Coast, and the only cross-denominational event of its kind in the country.
In 2013, inspired by her second daughter’s tepid Israel gap year experience, Folb founded the American Israel Gap Year Association, where she serves as executive director. “Find Your Right Direction: The Israel Gap Year Guide” encapsulates the breadth of her work, answering salient questions about post-high-school choices, and outlining the various programs offered in Israel.
“My goal is not for the student to end up a particular way, but to love Israel and feel strongly about the Jewish life they want to lead,” Folb said.
In addition, Folb points to the benefits often ascribed to the hiatus taken before post-secondary educational pursuits: According to the Gap Year Association, bridge year alumni experience a higher freshman retention rate, better grades and a more focused start to their studies than their peers who transition immediately from high school to college.
For Natalie Berger, a graduate of the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, the months spent at Midreshet Torat Chessed in Netanya meant an easier emotional adjustment when she arrived as a freshman at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania in fall 2020.
“All my friends were homesick and I realized, ‘Oh, this is your first time away from home!’” Berger recalled. “For me, it was nothing: I’m an hour-and-a-half away from home; we’re in the same time zone; everyone around me speaks that same language; there’s less culture shock.”
The seven months (of a 10-month gap year curtailed by COVID) also allowed Berger to further enhance her Jewish identity, another boon of the bridge year. “I find that some people in high school maybe are turned off because a lot of religious practices are enforced at home and are not a personal choice,” she said. “Once people leave seminary or yeshiva in Israel, they realize, ‘This is for me, this is what I want, and this is how I’m going to do it now—and it’s not because my parents told me to do this.’”
Folb elaborated on this aspect of the gap year experience for incoming college freshmen. “When they get to campus and are faced with the choice Should I go to Shabbat dinner or to the football game?, we parents like to think that they would choose the Shabbat dinner, that it would be innate,” she said. “But there’s a lot of pressure, and you don’t know how that will affect them. If they had the Israel experience and it was positive, and they feel comfortable in their Jewish identity, they will have an easier time connecting with Jewish experiences and groups on campus and finding their way to the Shabbat dinner.”
That was what Hannah Kirsch found as a Binghamton University freshman four months ago, after a year at Tiferet Center in Ramat Beit Shemesh. “I’m imagining myself having come straight from high school—and would I be as involved in Chabad as I am now or with the OU-JLIC couple? Would I have a chavrusa with the OU-JLIC rebbetzin? Probably not,” said the Kushner graduate. “All these religious identity details of my life were very much developed in Israel and I don’t think that would have been as valuable at Binghamton had I not gone to Tiferet specifically and had it not been a year of struggles: It may have been difficult for me to be without my high school friends at points, but I think it also facilitated a lot of growth, which I was then able to bring to campus.”
Folb also finds that the bridge year helps Jewish students stand up to what she calls the anti-Israel “hot rhetoric” on some U.S. campuses.
“When the kids come back from Israel, they’re ambassadors for truth,” she said. “Other people may have an opinion about what’s going on in Israel; these kids were there on the ground and they experienced everything going on. They have the opportunity to see Israel in all its amazingness and its challenges—and maybe understand how the decisions made by the government are contingent on these challenges. It’s not so easy for someone to say, ‘They should be doing this or that’ when they’re not living it. The miracle of everyday living in Israel gives our students the tools to engage intelligently, to turn to fellow students who are rabble-rousers and say, ‘I spent a year there,’ which changes the tone of the conversation.”
Those who might be nervous about stepping off the academic path can take a cue from Ben Marcus, a 2021 graduate of Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy in Stamford, currently on gap year at Aish Gesher in Jerusalem.
“Being accepted to Brown University as a pre-med student, with many years of studying ahead of me, why on earth would I choose to take a year out of my studies? To me, the answer was obvious: aside from it being the only time in my life where this opportunity is available, it has been scientifically proven that students who take a gap year between high school and college perform significantly better in their studies, have a better understanding of the world and of life than their peers, and learn how to be an independent human being,” he said. “Graduating college six months or a year later than the class I was accepted to makes little to no difference to me, as even a year is just a small morsel in a person’s life, and down the road, I will probably be able to make up that time. After seeing these statistics and information when making my decision to take a gap year, it became clear to me that the positives greatly outweigh the hesitations.”
In the end, the decision whether to spend a semester or year in Israel is deeply individual and personal, a process aided at many Jewish day schools by guidance counselors and Israel counselors, and by resources like the American Israel Gap Year Association. “These counselors put their heart and soul into finding the right fit for you,” Folb said. “Take the advice and feel comfortable because this is the first big decision you will make and it will shape your life.”
When asked for advice, Berger stresses that it’s important not only to take full advantage of all the opportunities to explore while in Israel, but to be realistic about what the gap year experience may deliver. “There can be an expectation that this is going to be the best year of your life, which is great, and for people who feel that way, amazing!” she said. “But I feel like it’s not fair to project that expectation, because then people might feel let down because the gap year is a great opportunity, but not every moment is going to be a glorious moment.”
And even if that proves true, said Kirsch, “in the worst case, you make amazing friends and you get to spend the year in Israel.”
Folb’s book, Find Your Right Direction: The Israel Gap Year Guide, is available on Amazon.
By Cynthia Mindell