June 15, 2024
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Life Beyond Shana Bet: Young Adults Find a New Path to Aliyah

It used to be that yeshiva students would graduate from high school and head to Israel for their “gap year.” Notice the use of the singular year. On occasion there would be a student who would remain for “shana bet,” a second year of study, but most students returned home after their year in Israel to begin their college education.

These days, a growing trend seems to be extending that gap year, sometimes indefinitely. Some yeshiva high school students plan to stay in Israel beyond that first year, and other young adults become inspired to stay during that first year of study. Whatever the catalyst, it appears that more and more Orthodox young adults are making the decision to remain in Israel beyond their gap year.

One such individual is JLNJ’s Israel correspondent Tzvi Silver. After attending yeshiva high school at TABC in Teaneck, Silver went to Israel to attend Yeshivat Lev HaTorah for his gap year with the intention of returning the following year to attend college at Yeshiva University.

“I came at age 18 to attend yeshiva. I planned to go to YU after that. But I just fell in love with the land, its Jewishness and the beauty of the country. Staying in Israel for college seemed like the perfect option,” said Silver, who gave up a scholarship to Yeshiva University to remain in Israel.

One of the key selling points for Silver was cost. “Tuition is cheaper in Israel,” noted Silver, who is now attending Machon Lev, the Jerusalem College of Technology.

According to some gap-year students who are planning to follow in Silver’s footsteps, they can attend college in Israel and even fly back and forth for all of their school vacations and it will still cost them less in the long run than it would to attend a four-year American college or university. Additionally, Israeli colleges are recognized outside of the country; therefore, any credits or degrees earned will easily be accepted elsewhere. “The more people do it, the more others will recognize it,” commented Silver.

For Silver, once the decision was made, the rabbis at Lev HaTorah were “very supportive,” Silver said. “They were never pushy about staying in Israel, but very helpful once I decided.” The quality of education was a huge draw. “The engineering programs are better in Israel,” he said. “That almost made it a no-brainer.”

Talya Cohen, a fellow Bergen County transplant, agrees wholeheartedly. “Four months into seminary, I knew I wanted to spend another year here. I didn’t want to return to America.”

Having fallen in love with Israel during her high school years at Ma’ayanot in Teaneck, Cohen’s plan had originally been to return to America after her gap year to study fashion, and then go back to Israel. However, after her gap year at Machon Mayan, she enrolled at Bar Ilan University and will officially make aliyah in October.

“Machon Mayan has a high aliyah rate,” Cohen said. “A lot of the girls decide to stay. The school supports aliyah and it’s definitely part of their agenda, but they let each girl find her own path.”

For Cohen, her defining moment came during a Shabbat spent in Bet Shemesh with friends. “The sun hit the hills just right, and that was it. I know that’s not conventional, but there it is,” she said.

At first, her decision was a shock to her parents, but “they are getting used to it,” she added. “Once I had a plan they were much more open to it.”

Cohen’s advice to other young adults wanting to follow this path? “The biggest problem in this process can be dealing with your parents. It’s a big decision and hard for them to be 6,000 miles away. Make them part of the process and don’t shut them out. Don’t give them an ultimatum. It will make your relationship with them much better.”

Other gap-year students contemplating spending their college years, or longer, in Israel agree that the most important part of getting their parents on their side was to present them with all the facts at the outset. They believe parents must not be approached without a well thought out plan, complete with details and specifics. Parents want to know more than that their child is planning to stay in Israel, and if they are given enough information they will be more likely to support their child’s decision.

For Dovid Gottesman, another former TABC student, his inspiration came during his gap year at Yeshivat Shaalvim, where he first realized that “to be a religious Jew means that that is the most important part of my identity.” He became much more serious in his Torah learning, developing “what I think is a long-term connection with learning Torah.” Ultimately, he realized that “Talmud Torah is one of the most important parts in a Jew’s life.”

During that year, “I went random places for Shabbos, spending time with all kinds of Jews—I went deep into Meah Shearim, far off into small moshavim in the Golan, and I developed a huge love for all Jews, and for the land. I drew a lot of inspiration from my rabbeim in Shaalvim who had so much to offer in so many areas. I learned not to compromise on any priority—that, as a Jew, one can try to do everything, and you would be surprised how far you could get.”

One of Gottesman’s priorities became making aliyah. “By the end of the year, I looked back and saw how much I had grown, and I looked forward, and I thought where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. I wanted to make my decisions with Hashem in mind. I started thinking about Israel, and I started thinking of a possible plan—the plan was to do Hesder and then go to college in Israel. I discussed it with my parents that summer, and when they saw that I had a plan, and that I would be very happy if I carried out my plan, and that I had the inner strength to carry out my goals, they didn’t object and they supported me 100 percent.”

Gottesman returned to Israel for a second year in Shaalvim, where he continued to learn and grow, which helped him tremendously when he entered the army. “There is no doubt about it, in order to keep halacha properly in the army, one has to have done preparation beforehand, so that he will know what to expect and how to react.”

Gottesman is now studying electronic engineering at Machon Lev, as well as learning, working and living at Yeshivat Hakotel. He has also recently become engaged to Rachel Wolfe and they are planning a spring wedding.

Minna Solomon, originally of Short Hills, New Jersey and Bruriah High School, went to Israel to begin her gap year “with the intention of staying for one year in a seminary program. I remember the trepidation, mixed with the excitement, before going on the plane, of not knowing what awaited me at the other side. Sure, I grew up learning about the history and unique beauty of Israel. I had even visited Israel with my parents as a child, but the memory of that had faded in my mind. In fact, in high school when we had assemblies which intended to advocate for making Aliyah, I never felt a connection to this concept.”

As a seminary student, Solomon was struck by the beauty of the country and its people. During the course of the year, she “gradually learned [her] way around, the ins and outs of Israel and what it really meant to live in a land that is truly home.”

Solomon went back to America for Pesach that year, excited to see her family and friends. “I remember how badly I wanted to show them the person I had become over the course of the year. I also remember feeling quite anxious about leaving Israel, yet reassured when I reminded myself I would be coming back. Although I enjoyed every minute with my family, I couldn’t help but feel something was lacking, something I knew that I could only feel once I was back in Israel.”

She returned to Israel to complete her gap year, thinking she would be bringing that connection back to America with her after the year ended. “But the more time I spent there, the surer I felt that I wasn’t ready to leave.” Eventually she made the decision to spend an additional semester studying in Israel, at Touro College in Israel, located in Jerusalem. “As the time passed, I felt that Israel was even more my home,” Solomon said.

A week before she was due to return to America, Solomon had a revelation. “Why couldn’t I make my life in Israel? Why couldn’t I stay?” she wondered. She started to realize that she could make life in Israel her reality.

The plan had originally been for her to return home and attend Stern College but, for Solomon, “Stern just didn’t feel like the right fit for me anymore.”

While her parents were not happy with her decision, they wanted to support her and told her that she needed to have a definite plan, including work and school. She soon had a nanny job, had started Ulpan and was applying to Israeli colleges.

Solomon is currently in her second year at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, studying psychology, and living in Givat Shmuel. “It’s hard to be away from my family, but I have never regretted my decision. My parents just wanted to see that my decision was real. They miss me, but they see I’m happy and so they’re happy, and that’s the bottom line. They want the best for me, and this is it,” she said.

For these four students, as well as many others like them, the decision to make aliyah was a natural progression, although not an easy decision. Remaining in Israel beyond their gap year simplified the aliyah process, and these new olim are now committed to the lives they believe were intended for them.

As Silver said, “It’s Israel. You can’t help but fall in love.”

By Jill Kirsch

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