Toward Gap-Year Consensus


One of the outcomes of the controversy over Rav Aharon Bina and his Netiv Aryeh yeshiva in Jerusalem is the increased attention focused on the fact that teens who spend a year in Israel are to a large degree on their own, with their parents often in the dark about the policies and intellectual and emotional environment of the institutions where they have sent their children.

No doubt most of the youngsters are in the good hands of respected and reliable educators. Still, we were pleased to learn this week that a conference will take place in Israel next month that brings together for the first time the heads of key year-in-Israel yeshiva and seminary programs and American yeshiva high school principals to discuss “over-arching issues and compelling concerns,” according to a statement from the American planners.

The nine U.S. educators who signed the invitation called the Israel Programs Conference, organized with the help of Yeshiva University and set to take place in Jerusalem March 12-15, a “groundbreaking” event. Until now, the two groups of educators, those here and in Israel, have been, in effect, partners by default.

“As a group, we have never expressed our concerns or collaborated with our peers in Israel about the strengths and weaknesses of the gap year experience,” wrote Eliezer Rubin, principal of the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy Middle School and the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, N.J., and point person for the 13 U.S. schools organizing the conference.

He said the hope is “to galvanize yeshiva high school heads in a thoughtful and responsive” coalition because until now, “each yeshiva high school is operating in isolation.”

The effort is to be commended, and comes not a moment too soon. For while all concerned share a common goal of providing young men and women the opportunity to focus for a year on serious Torah study and commitment to a life of mitzvot, the fact is that many parents and students make their choice of schools — so critical to the youngsters’ future — without the kind of serious inquiry they put into college searches.

The gap year has had a powerful and overall positive impact on the Orthodox community of America in the last 35 years, strengthening commitment to Torah study and to Israel among a whole generation of young people. But given the thousands of miles separating parents and children for many months, and the lack of a central authority or standardized accountability procedures among the Israeli programs, it is not surprising that misunderstandings can and do arise over a range of issues, including religious ideology, curriculum, pedagogical styles and discipline.

We wish the conference success and hope it will lead to greater understanding and consensus, and ongoing communication among educators here and in Israel, making the gap year an even more rewarding experience.