What would you do with $20,000, and a year in which to spend it? Go visit every MLB stadium in the United States? Travel the world and see the most exciting, exotic places? Buy the newest, most up-to-date tech, or just go on a crazy shopping spree every month or so? The possibilities are endless. So what are you doing, spending so much time and money on a year in Israel? You know you'll be learning Torah and experiencing Israel, but is that really the goal of the year? What, exactly, are you hoping to accomplish?
I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that I can't answer that question for you. Only you can decide what you're looking to get out of your year; me telling you 'the' answer isn't helpful to anyone. You won't really own it unless you come to it on your own. The good news is that I can ask you the question, and provide a few prompts that may prove helpful while you think about it on your own.
Get out something to write with and write on. That could be a pen and paper, pencil and post-it notes, or your computer or cell phone. The advantage of the first two is that it's much easier to focus on what you're doing; there's always something else to do on a phone or computer, and you're going to want a distraction as this exercise gets difficult. The advantage of the phone or computer is that you'll have the list saved, which will be important when you want to refer back to it later in the year. Set a timer for fifteen minutes, and spend the entire time writing yourself a list. The topic is, "Things I Want to Gain From My Year In Israel." You're brainstorming, so don't worry if the things you write down are cohesive or even make sense at first glance. Also, you're writing this for yourself, so be honest - don't just give the answers you think your parents or teachers want you to give.
Everyone's list will be different. Aim to have at least 15 items on the list. It might be helpful to think in different categories:
The truth is, there's a behind-the-scenes advantage to the year in Israel that doesn't get as much press time as the more obvious benefits. To me, though, this aspect is the most important part of the entire experience. The outward, obvious goals are the Torah and Israel aspects; that makes sense, as that's what you'll be spending the entire time doing. However, if you zoom out, you'll notice another aspect to the year. For most people, this year is their only opportunity as mature adults to be totally focused on their own growth and development, without any other distractions. The next step for most people is college or university. The moment you walk into an academic environment, you're immediately enveloped by never-ending demands on your time. Homework assignments, readings, and quizzes all build towards bigger tests. Then come midterms, followed by finals. You're not in control anymore; you have to follow the schedule set by the university. That's great for academics, but it doesn't give you the opportunity to pursue topics you're interested in, discuss ideas with friends over Shabbos, and just ruminate on the Mussar shmooze you heard Thursday night.
In other words, the year in Israel is an unparalleled opportunity to figure yourself out. Part of that is learning about and developing your Hashkafa, or the 'lens' through which you see the world. A strong Hashkafa acts as a foundation for continued growth, allowing you to integrate whatever you go on to do (building your family and beginning your career are the big ones) into your picture of an ideal Eved Hashem. You're finally mature enough to think deeply about life, old enough to have an idea what your strengths and weaknesses are, and young enough to set incredible goals for yourself. A well-planned and intentionally pursued year in Israel can set in motion a life of growth, achievement and accomplishment, all stemming from the foundation you set for yourself in Yeshiva or Seminary. So that's why those other things are on the list: While becoming more mature probably won't happen directly because you learned a cool Ramban, and you won't choose your spouse based solely on that Shabbos you had in Mevo Choron or Ramot, there will be an impact as long as these things are on your radar.
So when people asked me why I was spending a year in Israel, I gave them the regular answers - to learn how to learn, to learn about and connect to Israel. When I came back, though, and people asked what I had gained, I realized that really, the answer was myself.
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