Nina Tabrizi has been back in the U.S. for almost two months now, but in her mind, she’s still in Jerusalem.
If she closes her eyes, it’s early May, and she’s at the Mount Herzl cemetery for Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. She can still hear the sounds of sirens echoing in the air, the gunfire, and then celebratory shouting all around her as the holiday transitions into Yom HaAtzmaut, Independence Day.
“Hearing all the politicians, seeing these thousands of people at the soldiers’ graves, and then you turn around at night and everybody’s celebrating … it was incredible to see,” said Tabrizi, 19. “It’s such a big jump going from complete sadness to complete happiness, and it was amazing to witness how normal that is there, from an outsider’s perspective, from a North American perspective.”
That night is just one of many Israel experiences that Tabrizi says will stand out in her mind for the rest of her life. It’s also one of the reasons she’s so grateful she had the chance to do a gap year program in Israel — in her case, a nine-month, international travel–focused track called Olami, organized by Young Judaea — following her senior year of high school.
“It was the most amazing experience of my life,” said Tabrizi earnestly. “I would not be the same person if I hadn’t done it.”
Gap years have long been a way for recent high school grads to take time off before college and enjoy a little independence before heading back to the school environment.
But gap year programs in Israel can do more than provide an avenue for soul-searching. According to a recent study commissioned by the Masa Israel Journey program, which allows young adults to spend up to a year in Israel, an extended Israel experience made alumni more likely to marry someone Jewish, become involved with Israel-related activities back home and consider a job in the Jewish community.
In addition to Masa and Young Judaea, Israel gap year options include Yeshiva University’s July in Jerusalem, the Union of Reform Judaism’s Netzer Year and Kivunim: New Directions, among others.
A graduate of Washington High School in Fremont, Tabrizi said she first became interested in the idea of a gap year in Israel after her older brother had gone on a Young Judaea program in 2007. He had heard about it through his Midrasha program in the East Bay.
“He came back with such amazing experiences to talk about,” Tabrizi recalled. “I was a sophomore in high school at the time, and hearing his stories, I just went ‘Oh my gosh, everything he says is exactly what I want to do!’ ”
Three years later, with high school graduation mere weeks behind her, Tabrizi found herself on a flight to Jerusalem for the beginning of her own journey. During her nine months in Israel — which were punctuated by organize..d group trips to Portugal, South Africa, Uganda and India — the teenager says her worldview widened as she learned constantly, even (or especially) while not in a classroom.
“The perfect thing about Young Judaea, for me, was that it was flexible enough for us to go and do our own thing,” she said. “There’s mandatory classes and volunteering, but in my free time I could go camping and hiking, or find a host family to stay with for Shabbat, spend a weekend in Tel Aviv … I really wanted to take advantage of that. You learn how to go and do things on your own.”
Tabrizi said that, while she had some minor trepidation going in — many of the other students went to private Jewish high schools, she said, and she felt she knew less about Israel than most of them — she formed immediate bonds with others on her program.
The trips outside of Israel, in particular, served to instill a deep sense of pride in her culture. “In each area, we participated in some kind of activity with the Jews that lived there,” she said. “That was really meaningful, just getting together with Jews from the diaspora. You’re hanging out with young Jews in India, and I mean … I don’t think most people were even aware that there were Jews in some of these places.”
Jessica Saldinger, 19, was drawn to her gap year program via a slightly different path. Raised as a Reform Jew, Saldinger was a junior at Foothill High in Pleasanton when the idea of a year in Israel crossed her mind for a few reasons.
“I didn’t know where I’d be going to college yet, but I was planning on majoring in Judaic studies, and I wanted to learn Hebrew. I was also interested in learning more about religion,” she said. “And also, I was burnt out! After almost four years of AP classes on a competitive track, I wanted the chance to take a breather before college.”
Saldinger found the Nativ yearlong gap year program, a challenging academic program dedicated to educating the “Conservative Jewish leaders of tomorrow,” through the Contra Costa Midrasha. It appealed to her, she said, because it was so different from anything she’d tried before. “I wanted to try out the Conservative movement,” she said.
She knew a bit about what was in store for her, having previously been to Israel on a 10-day trip with Write On For Israel, the Jewish advocacy and journalism course. It was an experience that left Saldinger wanting more.
“I left thinking, ‘I have to come back,’ ” she recalled. “That trip definitely made me feel a really big connection to the land.”
While she might have felt somewhat prepared for what lay ahead, Saldinger says the nine months she spent there far surpassed any expectations she carried into the experience.
“I learned much more Hebrew than I thought I would, and I made some really amazing friends — friends I’ll have for the rest of my life,” she said. “But the best part was that it really did open up my mind to a different way of looking at the world.
“Things like having Shavuot hosted by young Israelis, where they’re all in the army … it makes you realize what a bubble we’re in,” she added. “It’s just so enlightening to get to see the world through this other lens.”
In addition to her classes, Saldinger spent her second semester living on a kibbutz. She also made a point to travel throughout the country.
In particular, she said she’ll never forget one weekend when she and a couple friends stayed with a family in Hebron, in the West Bank, for Shabbat. As the town was notorious for regular conflict between Arabs and Jews, the teens rode to the family’s house in a bulletproof bus, noting Israel Defense Forces guards stationed all around.
“There was a barricade between the right and left side of the street, and Jews were required to walk on one side and Arabs on the other,” remembered Saldinger. “You could feel the hostility and tension in the air.”
Once at her host family’s house, however, Saldinger was struck by the sense of warmth and peace in the home. After a Shabbat dinner spent sharing stories and singing songs, the students asked the family why they had chosen to live in such an embattled region.
“They told us that they wanted to be close to the tomb of Avraham Avinu,” Saldinger said. “I remember being surprised that their reasons for living there weren’t political or confrontational … they didn’t fit my stereotype of ‘settlers’ living in the West Bank. The more I visited families living in the West Bank, the more I realized how wrong that stereotype was.”
The group sat around singing and discussing the Torah until after 1 a.m. “It was the most peaceful, serene Shabbat I ever spent,” she said.
Saldinger returned to the U.S. in May, and is enjoying time at home in the East Bay before heading off to Yale in the fall. Regardless of where her education takes her, she is confident the trip has left an indelible mark on her — and that she’ll make her way back to Israel at some point.
“It affected my life in so many positive ways,” she said. “There’s no question it shaped who I am today.”
According to Ahron Glazer, the executive director of a new gap year program called Imadi, teens who choose to spend a year in Israel before beginning university are better equipped to deal with the tension about Middle East relations that’s common on college campuses. Imadi (“stand by me” in Hebrew) seeks to attract Jewish students who might not be entrenched in their local Jewish community, or feel connected to Judaism in any formal way.
“We’d like to help students figure out how to balance academic life with Jewish living — not just to appreciate their Jewish identity, but as a leadership opportunity,” said Glazer, a longtime Oakland resident with deep ties to the Bay Area’s Jewish community, who made aliyah in 2008 in order to get Imadi off the ground. “Not only to be able to defend Israel on campus, but to have the strength and capability and vocabulary to actively and appropriately respond to accusations, and say ‘No , I lived in Israel, I know what goes on there.’”
As a partnership program with the Jewish Student Union — which runs Jewish culture clubs in public high schools across North America — Imadi will ideally suit many different students, from a range of backgrounds, by creating individualized tracks that can be personalized for each teen. The program, whose inaugural school year will begin this September, is also partnered with Hebrew University; students will take classes there for the duration of their gap year.
Glazer said that, above all, he’s driven by the desire to help teens connect or reconnect to their Jewish identity in a positive way, and to develop a relationship with Israel.
If Imadi students are anything like Tabrizi or Saldinger, “positive” won’t begin to describe it.
Asked if they had any advice for teens who were considering a gap year program, both girls responded with a hearty “do it!”
“Not only do I feel like I’ve witnessed things other people will only ever dream of, I’ve come to understand what my actual culture is,” Tabrizi said. “Seeing where my ancestors are from, learning about my heritage, in an environment where you can sit and read it from a book and then actually go experience it — you just can’t get that anywhere else in the world.”
Cover photo illustration/Cathleen Maclearie