The post high school gap year in Israel is known to be a transformative experience of spiritual development and growth. “I believe spending the gap year in Israel is an invaluable experience for both young men and women. It is a time of personal growth and self-actualization,” said Debby Rapps, director of the Jewish Youth Encounter Program, a program that offers Judaic schooling to Jewish children (most of whom attend public school) who want to increase their Jewish knowledge.
A JYEP student’s sister, AR (she wishes to remain anonymous), recently began a journey of growth in her own spirituality, which culminated in her wish to attend seminary. Her religious journey started when, after years of attending public school, she made the brave decision to enter a Jewish day school, selecting the Abraham Joshua Heschel School as the school that would help her connect to her Jewish roots. With her supportive parents by her side, she decided to explore and learn more about the Jewish culture. Describing her first year in a Jewish school as a “massive exploration,” AR told The Jewish Link that the new practices in which she engaged (such as prayer and learning Judaic studies) unveiled an entirely new future for her.
At age 15, AR was ready to celebrate her bat mitzvah, which had been overlooked three years prior. It was a mutual decision of AR and her parents for her to have a bat mitzvah, as her parents realized how important this milestone is in a young Jewish girl’s life. The bat mitzvah, which took place in Israel, was especially meaningful in that AR’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had never had bar/bat mitzvahs of their own since the family had lived in the former Soviet Union at a time of heightened Jewish persecution. As high school continued, religion became a staple in AR’s life. After exploring different denominations within Judaism, she ultimately “found her home” in Orthodoxy.
With a love of learning Torah, Talmud and Jewish philosophy, AR recognized that the more she learned about Judaism, the greater connection she had to it. When asked why she wants to attend seminary, she gave several primary reasons. She is seeking a greater breadth of Jewish knowledge and, through that, she hopes to gain an increased spiritual connection. In addition, she noted, “I think it is tremendously meaningful to be surrounded by a community of women who are also so devoted to living and learning Judaism as I am.” She added that it would be an incredible opportunity to live and grow in Israel for a year. Despite her wish to attend seminary, there was one obstacle preventing her from doing so: finances.
As AR continues to embark on this journey, she wants to go to seminary so she can fill the gap of knowledge that has held her back in her growth process. Because she was not raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, she feels that there is a certain absence of knowledge that, when not attained, makes practicing particular customs very difficult. The seminary that she believes can help her fill this gap is Nishmat. To her, Nishmat strikes a balance of what she is looking for in a seminary. While Nishmat allows for Israeli immersion, it also offers a rigorous learning program with English options. Also, Nishmat is located in Jerusalem, the perfect place for her to meet people who share similar passions.
AR made a point to note that she could not have travelled this road without the people who have motivated and inspired her to continue. Her mother, mentors, first-ever Limudei Kodesh teacher in school and rabbi all helped her hone that passion for discovering and growing. She highlighted her mother in particular since, although the concept of Orthodoxy is foreign to her, she has continued to support and encourage her daughter.
As AR picked up more religious customs, she discovered a strong connection to two mitzvot: tefillah and Shabbat. When she was first exposed to tefillah, she found it to be “like no other experience.” She realizes tefillah is a platform to communicate with God, to reflect, to be grateful and to be hopeful. Although she comes from a non-Shabbat-observing home, she developed a meaningful connection to Shabbat, not only because of its biblical and historical context, but also because of what it gives to her—a day to think, reflect and relax.
When asked about AR’s journey, Debby Rapps commented, “I know, just from seeing her passion and observing all that she has accomplished in a short amount of time, that she should certainly be encouraged to grow in her spirituality, and anything we can do to help her meet this goal will certainly be rewarded many times over.”
AR is extremely humbled by the donations that have come in thus far, and appreciative to everyone who has contributed, but noted that she is still shy of her goal. Often, the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av inspire many to work on themselves spiritually. Tisha B’Av may be over, but what remains are the opportunities to help others and better serve God. Helping AR attend seminary is one of those opportunities. To help send AR to seminary, visit her gofundme page at gofundme.com/abitoisrael.
Chani Shulman, a rising sophomore at Manhattan High School for Girls, is a summer intern at The Jewish Link.