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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Jerusalem—“A year from now you will wish you had started today.” This inspirational quote, attributed to Canadian author Karen Lamb, has very interesting implications on something which has become almost a rite of passage in the American Modern Orthodox world: “the year in Israel.”

This “year in Israel” has been known to have a tremendous impact on these young adults, building their skills in learning Torah and their relationship with God, as well as developing leadership skills and making connections with friends and teachers that will last a lifetime. As much as the post-high school gap year has become a norm over the past couple of decades, a new trend is beginning to emerge as well: students, after their “year in Israel,” wanting to stay shana bet (a second year).

As the final trimester of the yeshiva year begins, students in Israel are now beginning to feel the negative side of Lamb’s quote—that they didn’t make enough use of their gap year. Many contemplate staying a second year, but it is important for students and parents to consider the pros and the cons of Shana Bet.

The Jewish Link met with Israel guidance counselors from local Orthodox high schools and several students currently studying in Israel to hear what they had to say.

Program developers in Israel say Shana Bet will build on the experience the students had during their first year, and would further solidify their connection to Judaism.

Rabbi Ezra Wiener, the Israel guidance counselor at Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), said, “After one year, many students have not yet committed themselves to long term learning… shemirat hamitzvot in the fullest sense, to Yirat Shamayim as is expected of a devoted Jew. This is quite common as it takes a while to adjust to the year in Israel…An additional year may help solidify these essential aspects of Judaism which are unfortunately given little attention, even in a yeshiva college experience.”

Mrs. Suzanne Cohen, an Israel guidance counselor at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School, noticed that those of her “students who have spent a second year in Israel…are often more likely to go into communal service or chinuch. They are also more likely to make regular times for learning lishma and incorporate it into their routine once they are no longer in a regular learning environment. The benefit of an additional year devoted to intense learning, chesed (volunteering) and experiencing Israel, is an important and formative experience.”

Many students consider staying another year in Israel because they enjoy the environment and would like to spend more time there. Oren Glickman, a native of Teaneck, New Jersey and alumnus of Yavneh Academy and the Frisch School, is now studying in Yeshivat Lev Hatorah in Ramat Bet Shemesh, and is pondering the Shanna Bet question. Oren said, “I developed a close relationship with the rebbeim (teachers) and felt like I was at home. I also developed some close friendships.”

Josh Blachorsky of Paramus, New Jersey, who went to Yavneh Academy and  TABC, spent a brief spell in Rockland Community College before coming to Israel. He is in his second year at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut, and one of the reasons he stayed was because of the environment at his yeshiva.

While Shana Bet can be a unique opportunity for young adults to continue to grow spiritually in an isolated and focused environment, it is often very difficult to justify spending the money on tuition and setting back one’s college education to continue these studies. Many programs exert pressure around this time of year to make their students stay, making it very difficult for them to make an objective decision. Often it distances students from their parents.

When asked about the effect that this can have on students, Rabbi Wiener said, “This is psychologically damaging and puts undue pressure on students who really should not stay for a second year or students who thought they could learn well in college. Students who go home receive the message that implies they will never reach their true religious potential without staying, and this often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Rabbi Wiener, mentioning how recently Shana Bet trended mainstream, jokingly added: “Perhaps there will be a time when only those who stay for three years will reach their potential. Will that hurt the future of those who only stay for two years? Perhaps it will. I wonder how contemporaries of my parents remained religious, became Talmidei Chachamim, and brought up a generation of committed Jews when they only had one year, if that, of study in Israel.”

Not all yeshivot exert this kind of psychological pressure on their students. When asked about pressure, Oren said that at Lev Hatorah, “the program and teachers are very big on the second year but only if it’s right for the person—they know it’s not for everyone.” Chani Colton, an alumnus of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey and Maaynot is now studying at Tiferet Center in Ramat Bet Shemesh. She said that once she let her program know that she was not considering Shana Bet, they stopped asking her about returning next year.

In the end, the Shana Bet decision is an important and personal decision; one that should be made without undue pressure from anyone, by objectively weighing the pros and cons of each direction. For those who aren’t entirely sure if an entire second year in Israel is entirely worthwhile, there are other alternatives. Many programs will allow a student to stay half of the year, and then continue into college in time for the spring semester. One may want to attend a college with a dual curriculum, where they can try to keep up their learning while also continuing their lives and starting their college education. For those who feel very connected to Israel after their time there, but might not want to continue learning in yeshiva or seminary, they can consider beginning their college education in Israel. Many Israeli colleges, such as Bar Ilan University, the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev), and the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) of Herzaliya, have programs for English speakers and offer learning and touring opportunities while studying.

In the end the most important thing to remember, says Rabbi Wiener, is that while “there is certainly great value to more Torah learning in general... Shana Bet is not the only way to accomplish this. Whether the extra Torah learning will be a second year in Israel; a commitment to enter a profession that will enable a person to allocate more hours in the day for Torah study (despite living a more modest lifestyle); the decision to take fewer secular studies courses per semester in a Yeshiva University/Lander College environment so that there is more time for Torah study (maybe in place of Shana Bet); the decision to attend one of the aforementioned colleges instead of a secular university—these are all decisions made with the goal of enhancing one’s Talmud Torah experience.”

For those who will be starting yeshiva next year, heed the advice of Karen Lamb so that at this time next year you will not have any doubts about making good use of your year, so the Shana Bet question will be about continuing the Israel experience, not re-doing it.

By Tzvi Silver