How have Jewish gap year programs in Israel changed from 30 years ago?

We need to adapt to incorporate the new reality and to squeeze from it the very best possible outcome for the students to produce from them a generation of Jews.

 THE STUDENTS’ ability to reach their parents at any time was a game-changer.  (photo credit: Paul Hanaoka/Unsplash)
THE STUDENTS’ ability to reach their parents at any time was a game-changer.
(photo credit: Paul Hanaoka/Unsplash)

For about 20 years now, I have had the privilege of teaching in many of the gap-year midrasha and yeshiva programs in Jerusalem. Over the years, I have noticed a few trends that differentiate the experiences of students today from what I underwent 30 years ago during my own gap year.

The first is the phone. The cellphone was already in everyone’s hand when I first began teaching. They were the old Nokia phones that were ubiquitous at the turn of the century. They are now referred to as “dumb phones,” as opposed to our new smartphones. On the dumb phones one could basically do nothing but make phone calls and play Snake. But the ability of the students to reach their parents at any time was a game changer that, in my opinion, forever changed the fabric of the gap year. No longer were the students in Israel left alone to figure out things for themselves. They were in constant contact with their parents, who were consulted on everything and, in turn, heavily influenced what were supposed to be the students’ independent decisions.

Before the mobile phone, at a distance from family, young people had to figure out on their own: plans for Shabbat, social challenges, difficulties in their classes or schedules, time management, when and how to see that long-lost relative, how to nurse a cold or see a doctor.

How has the cellphone changed Jewish gap year programs in Israel?

The introduction of the cellphone into the lives of the students served as a wireless umbilical cord in which the student was constantly in contact with the parents. The observer effect made famous in physics teaches that a phenomenon is changed when it is observed. The constant observance of the parents forever affects the gap year experience in a most profound and negative way.

During my gap year, I spoke to my parents once a week for no more than 10 minutes, usually just five. Our main source of communication was through letters, mostly aerograms. Those letters contained a real exchange of ideas. They contained measured thoughts, as I described life in Israel and my amazement of how wonderful it was to be in a Jewish state. My parents, in turn, responded with reactions and questions, along with gossip and updates about friends and family. Reading my letters again, I can still hear the thrill of discovery in my voice. Those letters offered my case for staying a second year and why I needed to allow the cement poured during my first year of study to concretize into a meaningful, growing experience.

A man using mobile smartphone (credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)A man using mobile smartphone (credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)

Today’s phones, though, aren’t just telephones but little computers that occupy almost every minute of free time. I didn’t see a single TV show during my year here and went to the movies once, to see Schindler’s List. When I wanted to take a break from my yeshiva studies, I read novels in my dorm room. Today, students binge-watch entire seasons of television.

Increase in air travel has changed gap year programs in Israel

Another change is the increase in air travel. When students came for a year, they usually stayed in Israel from August to June. Some went home for the long Passover break, but most stayed throughout. Parents did sometimes come to Israel and see their children, but usually it was because the parents had another reason to be here, and visiting their son or daughter sweetened the pot. Today, students fly back and forth on a whim. They fly for a parent’s or grandparent’s birthday; they fly because they want to do Thanksgiving at home; they fly because they need a break. It’s amazing how often some students will fly back and forth over the year. Added to that are the parents flying here just to pop in.

As a teacher, I can see how disruptive these visits are to the development of the students. And when students go home for a visit, it takes months for them to get back into things.

Israel is different and so are today's students

OVER THE decades, Israel has become much more cosmopolitan and “Western.” The large number of restaurants, malls and stores here in Israel, with the same shops the students have in the States, serves to make their experience in Israel not much different from what it was at home. This blunts the disconnect and ability to challenge oneself by being in a foreign environment.

As for the students themselves, they are much different from the students of yesteryear. I have been pleasantly surprised by how smart, sophisticated and worldly they are. They read far less than we did, but they are now engaged and aware of world events and politics. The students who sit in my classes are just such interesting people involved in a diverse range of activities. They ask such interesting questions based on a real thirst for knowledge. They care deeply about other people and see themselves as rightful members of a global community.

This makes my job more challenging. At the risk of sounding provincial, I need to help them shift their weltanschauung [worldview] from a universal point of view to a more Jewish point of view. I need to help them learn their place in the world as not just men and women but as Jews. But still, having such wonderful raw human material to start with makes that challenge a pleasure.

When I walk into a classroom, my first thought is What would I want to hear about if I were sitting in their place? What would be the questions bothering me or that should be bothering me? I try to anticipate their questions not by answering them necessarily but by asking them first. I see as one of my goals as an educator to not only try to answer questions but to propose new ones.

I see myself as a link in a chain of tradition stretching back to Moses himself. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik described, when I walk into the classroom, I believe Hillel, Shammai, Rabbi Akiva and Rashi are marching beside me. With their help and under their watchful eyes, it is my responsibility to translate the legacy of Abraham into a language that can be heard and appreciated by the Instagram generation.

In order to do that, I need the algorithm of my class to be better than TikTok’s, without watering down the brand of Torah. I am Orthodox because I believe that diluting Judaism is destructive, but I am modern because I believe I can properly interpret Torah in a language and grammar that can be appreciated today.

The contrasts I described above are not going to change. We need to adapt to incorporate the new reality and to squeeze from it the very best possible outcome for the students to produce from them a generation of Jews who are committed to Jewish peoplehood, Torah and Eretz Yisrael. I look forward to the chance to do that! 

The writer has a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.