The Great Gap

The Jewish News
Suzanne Chessler

Suzanne Chessler

More and more, Metro Detroit high-school grads are opting to take a gap year before starting college.

While a student at North Farmington High School, Blair Bean joined a conversation started by family friends discussing high-school graduates taking gap years before entering college.

Bean soon began mulling over the idea of allotting time to pursue interests beyond career academics. Not only did she relate to the idea, she also decided to spend a gap year in Israel.

That destination has been chosen by a number of local gap students, from Orthodox to Reform, and for different reasons.

“I wanted to try new things,” says Bean, a member of Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield. “I wanted to be part of an accepting community. I wanted to be able to make mistakes and get some experience in learning how to be successful. I wanted to make new friends and take the idea of being independent to a whole new level. I wanted to give of myself and strengthen my connection to our Jewish homeland.”

Bean, recently returned and about to enter Michigan State University as an English major, found all that she wanted by completing a program with Young Judaea. She also received college credits through American Jewish University for studies that were part of the program.

“I took campus classes in Jerusalem that covered Hebrew, Jewish law and Middle Eastern conflict,” she says of the academic segment of her experiences. “We also had classes where the country of Israel was our classroom, and we learned about religions of Israel and the history of Zionism through art.

“I volunteered in a youth village and met kids from many countries. There also was time for special interests, and I spent one week each in viewing art in Jerusalem, going through desert survival techniques and sea hiking.”

As she gets ready to go to college, Bean feels very glad she had the gap after high school.

“The year opened my eyes to so much good and so many bad problems our world faces,” she says. “I got to express myself and enhance my leadership abilities. Every time I feel anxious about taking a next step, I remind myself that I was able to get around another country by myself and didn’t even speak the language. I am forever grateful for new friends, experiences and memories.”

If Bean follows trends, she may be at an advantage when earning her degree, according to a study cited by the American Gap Association.

“Students who had taken a gap year were more likely to graduate with higher grade-point averages than observationally identical individuals who went straight to college,” the study indicated. “This effect was seen even for gap year students with lower academic achievement in high school.”

Administrators at the Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield are very supportive of students opting to take gap years. They encourage participation and have had positive reactions.

“Gap year experiences help students grow emotionally, academically and spiritually, depending on where they go,” says Ella Dunajsky, director of college counseling at Frankel. “Ultimately, it provides them with the ability to learn more about themselves, and then they learn better in college.”

Rabbi Elliot Pachter, rabbinic adviser at Frankel, explains that programs in Israel are most popular among Frankel graduates, but other options are explained to students expressing an interest. AmeriCorps, for example, places young people in service programs that let them learn skills and earn money while assisting communities addressing problems.

To help pay for the gap year choice, some formal programs provide scholarship opportunities. Other participants find they have saved money by discovering more about themselves and their talents so that they enter college with firm ideas of the directions they want to take instead of adding classes — and maybe semesters — because of experimenting.

“During gap years, students explore how they interact with the world, who they are and where they can make a difference,” Dunajsky says. “They gain a sense of independence and self-confidence because they know they can tackle new [situations].”

Four Frankel students who opted for gap years in Israel — all holding different outlooks — returned very pleased about their choices and participated in a video about what they did.

Tamar Brown, entering the School of Dental Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, chose a gap program to develop her religious and spiritual outlook before starting the University of Maryland as a family science major.

“I studied religion five days a week, but I also had time to hike and explore the area,” she says. “It was the first time I was on my own, and I became more independent and made many friends. My love for Israel grew.”

Music has been a lifelong hobby for Joe Kahn, and he spent his gap year studying at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Israel before beginning a remote, self-guided career program, unrelated to music, through Goddard College in Vermont.

“My gap experience gave me time to develop who I am as an individual,” says Kahn, a sometime guitarist whose senior thesis combines ideas of philosophy, anthropology and religion. “It also gave me time to think about what I would do academically, and I felt more independent as I made excursions to different parts of Israel.”

Jonah Newman did not feel he was ready for college and decided to join the Israeli military for two years. Afterward, he went on to study finance at the Roth School of Business at the University of Michigan, where he is now a senior. Newman believes the Israel commitment helped with self-discipline and showing his capabilities.

Lexi Smith, now holding a communications degree from Michigan State University, wanted to explore the world — and herself — before going to college. As part of her Kivunim program, she traveled to many countries — Greece, India and Spain among them — to learn about their history and effects on Jewish culture.

“I matured and gained a passion for people,” says Smith, soon returning to Israel as a Masa Israel Teaching Fellow.

Rachel Krasner will be among new gap students arriving in Israel to realize their own purposes. A graduate of Cranbrook and a member of West Bloomfield-based Temple Israel, she wants more time for herself and introspection before pursuing classwork at Northwestern University.

“I’m going to a seminary to learn about Judaism and doing community service in the country was well as taking a heritage trip to Poland,” says Krasner, who has known others with satisfying gap year experiences and found hers through the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. “I’ve been to Israel before and felt a deep connection. I grow so much every time I’m there.”

Lexi Smith at the Taj Mahal
Tamar Brown with her sister above the Dead Sea
Rachel Krasner in Israel
Blair Bean in Israel.
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