A big part of the gap year experience is the fact that it takes place in Israel. Meeting the other people in your year most often happens at the airport getting ready for the group ﬂight; touching down 12 hours later at Ben Gurion is the ﬁrst opportunity to dance together, celebrating your arrival in Eretz Yisrael. But what would be so different if you took a year to learn on American soil? If your Yeshiva of choice was merely in a different state, rather than a different continent? Or even consider this - just a few minutes from your house? It would still be a year dedicated to learning Torah, building relationships with friends and Rebbeim. There would still be no distractions from secular studies or other classes. What would change if the Year In Israel took place in America?
Of course, the question assumes the point of the year is only to develop oneself in maturity and learning. If you assume that one of the goals of the year is to develop our relationship with Israel as the Jewish homeland and ideal place to live, the question is obviously silly. Traveling the land, walking where the Avos and Imahos walked, encountering the settings of most of the stories in Tanach are all powerful ways to make ourselves recognize that this land is our land. Spending Shabbatot in communities across the country is a wonderful way to find a niche where you feel comfortable and establish yourself in a small way as comfortable with the people who live here. But even from the learning and growth perspective, there are important benefits to the setting of specifically Israel.
There are a number of things that make the setting of the Gap Year unique and powerful. Some are simply practical, beneﬁts of being far away from home. Those could theoretically be garnered anywhere which is far away, Canada or Switzerland just as well as Israel. But there's at least one crucial point which makes locating the year of learning and growth davka in Israel, and nothing else could replace it.
First of all, in order for anything signiﬁcant to happen over the gap year, you need to fully envelop yourself in the experience. The only Chevra is the Yeshiva Chevra; the Rebbeim are the ones who set the tone for the students. If your yeshiva was close to home, you’ll be missing out on that all-encompassing aspect of the experience. You’ll still have access to the same distractions and preoccupations you were used to while growing up. While the activites themselves are not necessarily negative, their availability does take away from the gap year taking over as deﬁning everything about the experience.
A closely related point is that signiﬁcant growth demands space. When you grow physically and need new shoes, they need to allow space for growth. If that space isn't allotted when buying the shoes, before the growth has even happened, your toes will get cramped and won’t develop properly.
The maturation process instigated by the year in Israel also demands a similar amount of space. Traveling to a new country, away from family and old friends, you can redeﬁne yourself without baggage from high school life. You can choose new ways to express yourself or try to redeﬁne how you use your time. Unencumbered by the past, in a new environment with new people, you have the chance to let the things you're learning change you.
Another beneﬁt of traveling far away, even to a new country, is the maturity the experience kick-starts. For many people, the gap year is the ﬁrst time they're responsible to do their own laundry, keep their rooms clean, deal with roommates, and sometimes even prepare their own food. They set their own schedules for Shabbatot and navigate a foreign transportation system to get around. Whatever problems crop up, they have to solve with their own resources and ingenuity. Parents are no longer available 24/7 to take care of whatever they need. Often, such an experience is incredibly empowering. You start feeling like you’re capable, responsible adults. Part of feeling that way is you start thinking about the future, and some of the big questions we think we'll have ﬁgured out by the time we hit the "adult" stage of life. Who am I, why did Hashem create me, what do I want to do with the rest of my life, what kind of person do I want to marry? Confronting these big questions feeling like a real, responsible adult has the power of making many of the things you're learning feel much more real. Instead of just a continuation of high school, where ideas were memorized as knowledge for a test, concepts start becoming relevant as potential guides to answering these big questions. The maturation experience forces you to get serious about seeing yourself as an adult, who should have answers to the big life questions.
Practically, going to a program that is at all accessible to home automatically makes it impossible for the year to be an actual year-long experience. The Gemara in Ksubos 62b-63a says that after 12 years of learning in Yeshiva, R' Akiva came back home for the ﬁrst time. As he reached the door of his home, he heard his wife exclaim to a neighbor, "If my husband wanted to take another 12 years to learn, I would happily agree!" Hearing that, he turned on his heel and went straight back to Yeshiva. Everyone asks, would it have been so terrible to stop in, say hello to his wife, thank her for her dedication, and then head back to Yeshiva? The classic pshat given is, 12+12 is not the same as 24. 24 years of learning with a break in the middle is qualitatively different than 24 years uninterrupted. This is even more true when dealing with just one year (more accurately, ten months).
Even now, it is exceedingly rare for people to have a full, uninterrupted year away from home. Parents ﬂy their kids in for Bar/Bat Mitzvas, Ufrufs, graduations, and all kinds of other things. While those events are all important, and a family celebrating together is a beautiful thing, it comes at the cost of an uninterrupted, fully engrossed gap year experience. Even ignoring the homesickness that often results, a short trip back home often takes a full week out of the schedule: Packing and prepping the day before the trip, 3-4 days of the trip itself, and another few days recovering from the lack of sleep and potential jet lag issues. While a week doesn't sound like a lot, it is.
None of these points, though, are unique to Eretz Yisrael. Each one could be accomplished just by leaving home and traveling a signiﬁcant distance away, to any foreign country. What is the beneﬁt of being speciﬁcally in Israel for the year of learning?
On a metaphysical level, the Gemara in Bava Basra 158b posits that the air in Israel makes you smarter: Avira D'Eretz Yisrael Mach'kim. The extra boost, almost like a powerup in a video game, is definitely helpful when getting serious about learning Torah and tackling tough Sugyas!
On a more rational level, there is something incredibly powerful about living in a country where Tanach is part of the mother tongue; about learning Halacha in a place where Halacha is built into the social structure; about preparing for the Moadim in a country where everyone is celebrating along with you; about discussing the weekly parsha with a random cab driver. Growing up in Chutz LaAretz, no matter how insular the community, there is always a sense of being an outsider; learning was part and parcel of that, and therefore accompanied by feelings of discomfort. In Israel, for the ﬁrst time, learning Torah can feel natural; it ﬁts, and helps us feel like we ﬁt in. When learning feels natural, there are so many more opportunities to connect and grow through the Torah. That is something you can only get in Israel.
There are multiple goals to a gap year. It’s not just about learning as much as you can, or building a good Chevra, or growing into yourself, or falling in love with the state of Israel. It’s about all of those things (and more!). Locating this formative year in Israel as opposed to anywhere else contributes strongly to making as many of those goals happen as possible.
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