The Talmud tells us the following story:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya related: Once, I was traveling and saw a child sitting at a fork in the road. I asked him which route shall I take to the city? And the child replied, “this is short long, this one is long short.” I took the short long way and as I neared the city entrance it was obstructed with gardens and orchards. I retraced my steps and said to the lad, “Did you not tell me this is the short way?” to which the lad replied, “Did I not say it was long?” I kissed him on his head and said, “Blessed are you the Jewish people, for you are all smart; from the great ones to the young ones.”
The authors of this story had an important message, which is still relevant today. Throughout our lives, we find ourselves standing at forks in the road. Many times, the path that is best seems obvious, but there are other times when the correct choice is not so clear. Gap years, between high school and college, certainly fall into the category of “the long-short path.” The road may seem longer, but ultimately the traveler reaches his destination first. However, our first question should be – when it comes to college life, what is this “destination?” High school students spend so much time thinking about how to get into college that they often miss the more important question – what are we supposed to do once we get there? And is the ultimate goal the college experience or the life that comes after?
Harvard University encourages admitted students to take a gap year before beginning college. According to an article on the school’s website, between 80 and 110 admitted students choose to take time off before their freshman year. Harvard recognizes a critical piece of the education puzzle, which is that college is not about the four years spent on a specific campus. Rather, college is about developing who we are as people through academics, critical thinking, involvement in extracurricular activities, research, and more. College is a step on the way to adulthood.
In a more specific way, many in the Orthodox world subscribe to a similar philosophy, in which every student would benefit from a gap year spent in Israel, the natural place to develop one’s Jewish identity. It has become the norm in Orthodox high schools to have a gap year advisor in the college admissions office. The result is that many of the graduating seniors head off to Israel to study in yeshivot or seminaries before starting college in North America.
The fact that the non-Orthodox world has not done the same is not a matter of resources, but of priorities. There are many gap year programs designed to answer the different needs of a wide variety of students, emphasizing travel, internships, volunteer opportunities, and study. Students should do extensive research on gap years, just as they do for college, because the right choice can shape the way a student’s college experience will unfold.
For the past 33 years, the Conservative movement has offered the Nativ College Leadership Program as its own gap year option in Israel. (Nativ, fittingly, means “path.”) Over 2,000 students have explored Israel and their Jewish identities in a supportive and challenging environment, in a country where the overall tone is set by the Jewish calendar. In addition to academic or Judaic studies and intensive community volunteer work, each student has the space and support to build his or her own personal Jewish narrative within the framework of an observant Conservative kehilla.
The value of the experiences Nativ students have over the course of the year becomes clear when they reach their college campuses. Those who return from a gap year like Nativ find their student life niche more quickly than others, because they know what is important to them before they arrive. Their college experience is shaped by the values that were honed by their Nativ experience. This allows them to maximize the college years, strengthening their core values, which will guide them for the rest of their lives.
Based on a 2012 study of Nativ alumni, we know that 92 percent are involved with at least one Jewish or Israel organization on campus; 65 percent hold leadership positions in them; 88 percent separate Shabbat out from the rest of the week; 91 percent believe that they will marry a Jew.
In addition to the statistics, alumni shared their thoughts about how Nativ affected their years in college and beyond. One said, “Separating my adjustment to life on my own from adjusting to a college workload allowed me to come into college wiser, with more perspective on how to get the most out of it.” Another shared that “Nativ definitely helped me clarify/focus on what I really want to spend my time doing in college.” Lastly, one recalled that Nativ “resparked my Jewish connection and is the reason I attend services on Shabbat, keep kosher, and why I’m so involved in Hillel.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya initially took the path that he believed would be fastest. He found out, however, that sometimes the less obvious one is the faster track. High school students who are about to enter college want to “start living their lives,” but the best way to do that may be to first take a detour. The short long road is going straight to college – they may be starting school faster, but they may not necessarily know how best to use their time there. Those who choose the long short road recognize that college and the life beyond are about much more than academics. They are about taking all the values that have been instilled by parents, rabbis, teachers, and advisors, and making them their own, allowing students to enter college more mature, surer of themselves, and more ready to forge their own paths.