June 23, 2024
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Gap Year Students Struggle to Transition Back to ‘Reality’

Taking a gap year to Israel is one of the many opportunities Jewish teenagers look forward to during their four years of high school. Teens cannot wait to gain independence, experience Israeli culture, be surrounded by fellow Jews and build connections that will last a lifetime in a year that will be filled with memories. When it comes time for students to go on their gap year, there is a lot of anticipation involved. Sure, there are some nerves, but the overall feeling is excitement.

However, when the gap year finishes, misery and sadness outweigh all other emotions. Many teens suffer from mild depression after having to leave Israel, the culture, their friends and madrichim, and return to a larger, less-connected country in the Diaspora. Transitioning gap year students Noah Finkelstein and Jakob Okun share what it’s like to return to America after having spent the year in Israel.

Finkelstein, a Ramaz High School graduate, experienced the Bar Ilan University gap year program in 2019-2020, and even stayed an extra year in the yeshiva Torah Veh Avoda (TVA), partially because the pandemic allowed it, but also because he was not ready to leave Israel. Before Finkelstein’s gap year there were no nerves—he couldn’t wait to arrive in Israel. Even though he did not know much Hebrew, he practiced every night with the madrichim at Bar Ilan to get better, and now he feels comfortable with conversational Hebrew.

During his year in Israel, Finkelstein loved the outgoing personalities of Israelis, the accessibility of kosher food, being part of a majority, the language, the sense of community, and most of all the atmosphere during Shabbat and Jewish holidays such as Purim and Pesach. When it finally came time for him to return to the United States, he was ready to see his family and friends, but there were many difficult adjustments. The absence of the Machaneh Yehudah Market, Israeli energy and atmosphere, beaches, Jewish pride, and more was hard to leave behind. He missed being able to call his rabbis or madrichim whenever he had a problem and needed guidance, and he has had a hard time rekindling relationships during his return.

Finkelstein remarked that he has been trying to avoid the adjustment by keeping busy. “In Israel, your Jewish identity is extreme and very vibrant, but in America, it is more relaxed. I feel more of a connection in Israel.”

Similarly, Okun, who also attended Bar Ilan University for his gap year in 2020-21, said he was a little nervous, especially because he went during the COVID-19 pandemic before vaccines were available. Like Finkelstein, Okun had no problem assimilating himself into Israeli society.

Though he was ready to come home to his family and friends, Okun misses Israel immensely. Like most gap year students when they return home, he misses the independence, being surrounded by friends 24/7, the food, Israeli society and the Jewish atmosphere. Okun said: “In Israel you’re Jewish first; in America you’re American first. Jews are not the majority. I miss being Jewish in Israel.”

Okun misses the way Israelis open their arms to others, especially during Shabbat; being able to integrate himself with everyone around him without feeling any sense of fear for being Jewish was a result of that. “In Israel, everyone shares a love for the land, but in America the topic is controversial. I miss how unified Israel is,”

Like Finkelstein, Okun misses the connections he built in Israel. The hardest thing to adjust to, he said, is Judaism not being in the tapestry of one’s daily life, as it is in Israel. Gap years “are not just about learning all day in a classroom,” he said. “There is so much more to Israel, to what I gained this past year than I can ever describe to you.”

Though it is hard for gap year students to transition from Israeli society back to American culture, their memories and newfound relationships have helped not only Finkelstein and Okun, but many other gap year students upon their return. It definitely takes time to adjust and transition from such a meaningful and memorable experience, but the hope of returning to Israel in the near future aids the pain of having to leave the Holyland and all it holds.

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