The upside of a pandemic gap year

Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School seniors in Israel: “Overall this is the best experience of my life and I am so happy to be here with my friends,” says one participant.
Photo by Ariel Wasserstein

By Fran Kritz

JERUSALEM — Like her three older siblings, Adielle Tuchman, 19, of Silver Spring, chose a gap year program to attend in Israel after graduating the Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville last year. But Tuchman’s experiences in Israel during 2020 and 2021 have been completely unlike that of her brothers and sister. For one thing, Tuchman, who is attending Midreshet HaRova, a women’s seminary in the Old City of Jerusalem, arrived in Israel in the late summer before vaccines against COVID-19 were authorized by the Food and Drug Administration and Israel’s health ministry. “So, while I never got sick, my apartment mates did and each time I had to quarantine, too, and spent almost a month in my room,” Tuchman says.

That was unexpected. But so were some high points. The seminary is just a short walk from the Western Wall and once out of quarantine, Tuchman often went to pray there. “Some days it was just me, the only one, at the Wall. I felt like I was keeping it safe for everyone,” Tuchman says.

And because students were not allowed to go most places in Jerusalem or the rest of the country in their first few months, Tuchman says she spent concentrated time on her studies “and really maximized the learning opportunities” including Bible text and Jewish law.

Tuchman’s experience mirrors many others from across the religious spectrum interviewed by WJW. Rather than being disheartened by a year of differences and some angst, many students from the Washington area who spent a gap year or gap semester in Israel are energized and enthusiastic, especially after reveling in the post-Passover period, when most Israeli restrictions were lifted — many weeks ahead of the United States.

Eden Weinstein, 19, of Washington, who graduated Sidwell Friends and is headed for Tulane University in New Orleans next year, couldn’t enter Israel until April to start her study/internship gap year program, called Aardvark, based in Jerusalem. “But despite the shortened term, I’m excited to be studying and to experience Israel largely mask off.”

For the many Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School students who went on the school’s annual post-graduation trip to Israel where they continue their studies at the Jewish National Fund-USA’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel in Jerusalem, rules in Israel meant the trip began in April instead of February and will be shortened by a few weeks from the usual three months, says Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of school.

But the shortened trip hasn’t cut back on the students’ enthusiasm. “I am with friends without masks and distance for the first time since COVID started,” said Ariel Wasserstein, 18, of Silver Spring, who will continue his studies during a year-long gap year program in Israel next year. “We are just walking on the street, going out to eat, going on the beach, and live life without masks. It’s a blessing to be in Israel, and even more to be here without having to worry about COVID.”

That joy was tempered by the tragedy during the Lag B’Omer holiday at Mount Meron — where over 40 people were killed and many more injured during a stampede — and the recent war between Israel and Hamas. Several gap year students who went to Meron for the celebration and had enthusiastically agreed to speak with a WJW writer on their return, changed their minds about speaking publicly as they processed the shocking scene several witnessed, and learned that a gap-year student from New Jersey lost his life in the chaos.

And, on the heels of that came the rockets from Hamas and sirens propelling students to shelters. “The rockets have started to limit us and it’s a little scary that any second we may have to sprint to a shelter,” says Wasserstein, during the second week of fighting, and before the ceasefire. On one of the days, Wasserstein says he and friends “were playing basketball and had to run mid game to the shelter when the sirens went off.”

But Wasserstein, like other students, remained resolute. “We have been told that Hamas will not control our trip and we will be fine,” Wasserstein wrote, just ahead of the ceasefire, adding “overall this is the best experience of my life and I am so happy to be here with my friends.”

Two heads of local Jewish schools who have graduates in Israel are thrilled for those students who made it to Israel. “We always planned to send our seniors for the trip as long as Israel was open for visitors and our partners…in Israel were able to run the trip with the Ministry of Health requirements in place,” Malkus says. “We have sent JDS seniors on trips during other difficult times and the school was committed to sending our seniors this year as well.”

Rabbi Yossi Kastan, head of school at the Berman Hebrew Academy, says he is “incredibly proud of the decision our graduates made in pursuing their gap year during this pandemic.” Kastan added that “the uncertainty provided them with clarity about the purpose and priorities of their year in Israel. As an educator, what more could we ask for?”

Both heads of school also said they were happy the students could experience a bit more freedom in Israel than they had been able to at home. “I have heard from many parents of the students who say the students feel liberated and are just thrilled to have this time together, says Malkus.

“Being in Israel has been amazing for so many reasons,” says Arava Rose, 18, a CESJDS graduate from the District who plans to attend Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. “The freedom that you feel in Israel COVID-wise is one of the best things. The Sunday after we left quarantine the outdoors mask mandate was lifted. And the freedom to walk around outside without a mask and not be anxious about getting sick is very freeing.”

Then, of course, came the rounds of Hamas rockets in mid-May. “One day my friends and I all of a sudden heard an explosion and realized we saw the Iron Dome system shooting down Hamas rockets,” says Rose. “It started with only one or two and then we saw maybe 10-12 condensed white clouds of Iron Dome missiles hitting their targets. That was really when it set in what we were living through. But it was also a reassuring sight in some ways because it was a chance to see the Iron Dome in action.”

Elisheva Bellin, a psychologist who is an adviser for the women’s lone soldier pre-army program at Midreshet Lindenbaum, says during the past year she has counseled women who were having a hard time dealing with the limitations of the pandemic.

“For so many students, a gap year in Israel is a time to expand your independence, but for others it’s a more fragile time.” Bellin says the changes necessitated by the coronavirus, such as periods of quarantine and no parent visits, “exacerbated anxiety for some but gave others space to grow.”

Students who started gap year programs in 2019 before the pandemic began and stayed for a second year of study say there were, of course, some notable differences in year two. “But it was definitely a plus to be able to [study] without any outside distractions,” says Nadiv Turitz, a Berman graduate from Silver Spring.

Ezra Diament, a 2020 Berman graduate from Silver Spring who plans to attend the University of Maryland next year, says his studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, outside Jerusalem, became so intense and exciting given the lack of distractions that “one night I felt so sad after leaving the study hall even though I’d been there for 16 hours.”

Fran Kritz is a Washington-area writer.

Correction: The full name of the Jewish National Fund-USA’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel was corrected, June 3, 12:53 p.m.


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