Growing up on my gap year in Israel

 
by Sarit Tolzis, Cleveland, OH, Young Judaea Year Course alum
 
For as long as I can remember, spending a year in Israel after graduation was considered an automatic norm. I attended a modern-Orthodox Jewish Day School in Cleveland that teaches Judaic Studies as part of its curriculum, and where almost all the students spend a year in Israel before college. I had been to Israel several times before: I had trekked up Masada at sunrise with friends, enjoyed the sun of the Eilat beach with siblings, and solemnly paraded to the Kotel on Shavuot night with family.
 
Typically, girls from my community attend seminaries. But when senior year approached, I realized that I didn’t want to attend a yeshiva in an American neighborhood with American teachers and American leaders. Instead, I sought a program that promised I would really get to know Israel and its people, make great friends, and get some college credits along the way. I enrolled in the Shalem track of Year Course – a modern-Orthodox twist on Young Judaea’s Year Course that incorporates Jewish learning and activities into the daily routine. Shalem enabled me to develop a meaningful connection with Israel and afforded me a sense of independence that prepared me for life after the program.
 
The Year Course program immerses its participants into Israeli society, a feature that clearly distinguishes it from other, more insular programs for young American Jews. For the first part of the program, my peers and I lived in Bat Yam, a small city south of Tel Aviv. We lived in apartments throughout the city, which ensured we got to know the Israelis around us. The girls in my apartment, frustrated by the expenses and hassle of lugging laundry to the cleaners, soon felt comfortable enough to knock on our neighbors’ door and do our laundry there. During the days, we were assigned a volunteer project. I was assigned to an aftercare center with young children, many of whom were immigrants from broken homes.
 
My assignment was hard work; I helped the kids with their homework, fed them lunch, and ensured they cooperated in group activities, all in Hebrew! This initially daunting task, however, soon became a natural regimen as I learned about the kids, their families, and their histories. I began to regard my assignment as a personal responsibility and a source of pride.
 
Soon, we got to know the people of the city – not only were we doing laundry at the apartment next door, but we were invited to Shabbat meals at our neighbors', became buddies with the local makolet owners, and met our favorite restaurant owner's family. Bat Yam is not the most glamorous city in Israel, but the relationships with the people of Bat Yam that we forged in the three months’ stay made Bat Yam a special place for us. Similar relationships were established in each of the cities where we lived. These relationships couldn’t have been formed during just any vacation or learned from any textbook.
 
On Year Course, I also learned how to live like a mature and independent adult. While living in apartments, each person was given a weekly stipend, which we pooled together and used to buy groceries. We learned that Sweet Chili Sauce goes with everything. We learned that uncooked pasta and sauce is cheaper than ready-made food. We learned to avoid the candy aisles and go straight to milk and eggs. Such revelations enabled us to live safely and healthily without immediate help at our disposal.
 
Throughout the year we continually assumed greater self-reliance. The biggest test of my newfound responsibility came in the final three months when I became a Magen David Adom (MDA) volunteer. I learned Basic Life Support, which I put to practice during daily shifts assisting EMTs in an ambulance. The responsibility that I felt every time I was in the ambulance with a patient really made me grow up fast. We learned to think quickly, speak cleverly, and act precisely. I also learned about the fragility of health and to not take anything for granted.
 
All Shalem participants felt the love for Israel and new sense of independence; many of my peers returned to Israel, some to join the army, some to go to university, and even some to continue their original volunteering assignments. I was jealous, but I decided I needed to return home. After my bittersweet homecoming I pledged to remember what I learned and keep the momentum going.
 
I just finished my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. I have embraced my connection with Israel, taking Hebrew language courses and Israeli Film and Literature courses. I frequent the Hillel with all my friends both during the week and on Shabbat. Some of my friends grew tired of hearing about Israel from me and traveled there this summer. I anticipate that I will continue this momentum in the next three years and onward.
 

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