As students head back to the books this fall, Cheltenham High School graduate Jake Aronson will fly to Israel to work on a kibbutz, study Hebrew and volunteer with 90 other Jewish young adults participating in the Conservative movement's Nativ leadership program
Even though the majority of college-bound Americans still go straight from high school to higher education, a growing number are joining Aronson in taking a gap year to do something a little different first.
Gap years have been a cultural norm in England for decades, but only recently caught on in the United States as colleges began promoting them as a way to gain perspective and life experience.
Teenlife.com lists almost 300 structured programs; the Center for Interim Programs, a private counseling firm in Princeton, N.J., counts more than 6,000.
Jewish agencies have jumped on the trend, too. While Orthodox students have long been taking a year or two before college to study at a yeshiva, there are now about 30 programs in Israel catering to kids from all affiliations
. That's at least five times as many as when Masa Israel Journey, a clearinghouse for Jewish study-abroad experiences, was established in 2004, said Avi Rubel, director of North American operations.
According to Masa, 2,481 young adults participated in a non-yeshiva Jewish gap year program in 2010-2011. That's up from 1,500 in the agency's first year.
The increasing difficulty of getting into top-tier schools might have something to do with the upswing. Rubel said he's heard from students who took gap years when they didn't get into their first-choice school and reapplied while abroad, hoping the school would recognize how much more they could bring to the classroom after their travels.
From Rubel's perspective, it's a prime opportunity to reach out to unaffiliated young adults in hopes of building Jewish identity. For that reason, he continued, Masa has pushed for Israel-based programs to serve more diverse interests such as art, politics and environmentalism. Even decades-old Zionist education programs, like Young Judaea's Year Course
, have added tracks focusing on medicine, business, cooking, traveling and other specialties.
"If we have the right content to offer," Rubel said, "then people are interested." ...