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The Scroll’s Advice for Gap Year Students

Before you leave for Israel or anywhere else, read this

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A Gap Year Program in Israel.(Facebook)

The ceremonial dispensing of sage advice is (and will probably remain) an inevitable and often insufferable part of a young person’s life experience.

“The journey doesn’t end here, [hungover, indifferent] graduates, it begins now,” newly diploma-ed masses in overpriced robes are told at the end of high school and college. “Pablum. pablum. Lorem Ipsum.”

But for those embarking on a gap year program in Israel (or anywhere else), there’s often communal skepticism. Gap year programs, which are year-long programs that take place between senior year of high school and freshman year of college, are sometimes maligned as wasteful, extravagant, and indulgent enterprises for teens. It’s not always true. Some involve internships, important volunteer experiences, language immersion, and college-level classes, which if you take for credit, can ultimately constitute your least expensive year of college.

So if you or someone you know is about to embark on a gap year program here’s some advice. It’s tailored to a gap year in Israel, but the principles more or less apply to anywhere. These suggestions are both things I was able to do or things I wish I had been able to do.

1. Take up a hobby.

Imagine arriving at college (or anywhere really) a seasoned traveler who can sketch a landscape, code one of those fancy internet things, work through the guitar solo of Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” or recite all 1500 lines of Leaves of Grass from memory. Sure these skills may already be ones previously acquired, but gap year programs are often stocked with enough built-in downtime to let you learn more of them. Don’t fritter away your spare time playing Candy Crush.

2. Really learn the language.

There’s a tendency, especially when cloistered among cliques of fellow teens, to not fully commit to learning the local language. To boot, some Israelis make it tough by not wanting to chat in Hebrew (or any language) with you. Resist. Learn Hebrew or Arabic or Aramaic or Yiddish or Kosher Pig Latin or all of the above. You’ll regret it if you don’t.

3. Take a special interest in local goings on.

During my year in Israel, the Second Intifada broke out, I lived in an absorption center filled with Russian immigrants, Ariel Sharon walloped Ehud Barak in a national election, and I had the unique pleasure of voting absentee in an American presidential election that was mired in controversy. There are countless other examples and all of them were opportunities for me to understand a new terrain as never before and gain perspective I didn’t have. It’s critical to make the most of those chances.

4. Write home about them.

Observing, analyzing, articulating, and chronicling the things happening around you for friends, former teachers, your hometown paper, and family members will help you mark your time. You’ll develop a skill and enhance your relationships with the wise people in your circles.

5. If you can (and it’s safe to), visit those taboo places.

For all Peter Beinart’s recent handwringing about the tendency of American Jewish organizations to avoid travel to the West Bank or engagement with Palestinians, as Yair Rosenberg wisely pointed out, the intellectual curiosity among young American Jews to learn Arabic or visit places where one might be out of his or her element remains high.

Because of the violence when I was there, I was barred from even riding buses, but in later years, extended trips to places like Ramallah, Deheishe, Bethlehem, Jenin, and even simply East Jerusalem forever altered the way I look at the landscape. To be even more haughty about it, I’ll offer that it’s easier to defend your beliefs, be an advocate of something, or just flex the fibers of your emotional intelligence when you’ve made an effort to absorb the entire picture or visit a place where you might feel socially uncomfortable. If it’s safe, go.

6. Remember that you can always change your plans.

A year (or any extended period of time in a far off place) will probably make you consider or reconsider your future plans. My gap year program led some fellow participants to do things as big as make aliyah or as small as switch their intended majors. During my year, I decided I wanted to go to college in Washington, D.C. and I reapplied to schools. Another friend of mine became a doctor after a meaningful stint volunteering for Mogen David Adom.

7. Always accept those creepy invitations to dinner.

Be it third cousins you’ve never met, an intense American family that recently made aliyah, shlichim bent on making you more observant, or your aunt’s friend Doris visiting Israel from Boca, when invited for a meal, go. Don’t be shy. That’s how being Jewish works.

At the very worst, you get a free meal. At the very best, you’ll hear about things from an insider, your network will expand, your parents might be more willing to send you cash for a weekend trip, you’ll meet a nice girl (or boy), or you’ll have a place to take your laundry, spend a free weekend, and hang out when the AC in your dorm is on the fritz.

8. Israeli Miscellaneous

Embrace the microclimates. Go camping in the mountains, hike the deserts, bike around the Kinneret, learn how to surf. Go to a soccer game, a basketball game, a political rally, a festival. Go to a rave in a kibbutz barn, a party in a bomb shelter, and a concert at a moshav. Crash a wedding. Read a boatload of Yehuda Amichai. Don’t assume that American standards for personal space apply in Tel Aviv dance clubs.

The Passover food in Israel (even at bus stations and kiosks) will blow your mind, eat it. Read the local papers. If it’s not something you’d ordinarily do, try wearing a kippah everyday, fully observing Shabbat, or keeping Kosher and see how it feels. Always give up your seat on a bus or train for a soldier. Do not hold a door open for anyone ever. You’ll be there for hours. Hebrew slang doesn’t make any sense. Just start making stuff up, it’ll catch on. Pick-up lines do not work on Israeli women. Israelis will be very confused if you try to kiss them at midnight on New Year’s.

Go to the shuk in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv on a Friday morning, buy groceries for your weekend. If you’re on anti-anxiety meds, don’t skip your dose before you go. Walk from Jaffa to Tel Aviv on a Friday afternoon. Try the Persian, Iraqi, Ethiopian, Yemeni, and even Mexican food in Tel Aviv. Volunteer for a non-profit. Visit the small towns to get away. If it’s legal, learn how to drink like a reasonable person (try to avoid well liquors, tip reasonably, don’t drink most Israeli beers, and stop after three drinks unless it’s Purim).

Give yourself an hour of alone time each day to walk around. Do not take up smoking. Owning a hookah will make you “that guy/girl.” Following a trying interaction with a brusque Israeli, be sure to laugh about it. Try dousing your shawarma with amba, you won’t be able to get it anywhere else. If you’re going to get hooked to Iced Aromas, pick an Aroma that’s at least a mile mile away and walk there. Don’t use your phone too much.

Leading to (perhaps) the most important bit of advice…

9. Learn how to ask for help.

You’re in a new place. You won’t necessarily know where you are, which bus to take, what the proper postage is, or whether you’re about to order a dish that has ghost peppers in it. Learning to ask is massively important.

10. Call your mother.

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The Scroll’s Advice for Gap Year Students

Before you leave for Israel or anywhere else, read this

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