My gap year experience in Israel so far has been nothing short of the best year of my life. I have explored so much of Israel and so much about myself in just the three short months that I have been here. Each day brings something new: a new food, experience, conversation, trip, or insight. As a part of the program I am on, Nativ College Leadership Program, I live in Jerusalem and spend most days at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus. There, I broaden my knowledge of many fields in which I have always been interested, and establish context for daily life here in Israel. I am taking four classes: Advanced Hebrew, Colloquial Arabic, The Battle over the three Bibles (Jewish Bible, Christain Old Testement, and Muslim Quran), and Technology and Entrepreneurship in Israel. These classes have given background and insight on ideas that I have always pondered, and I constantly look forward to applying all that I have learned into my own life. For example, after learning how to read, speak and write Arabic letters, I have been able to read every Arabic street sign. Also, after learning the basics of a conversation in colloquial Arabic, I have gone up and talked to Arabic speakers in their native tongue. I have learned more about Israel as the renowned start-up nation, and had the opportunity to learn from intriguing people who began successful international companies from scratch.

When I am not studying at Hebrew University, I explore Jerusalem and soak in all it has to offer. I get to experience the antiquity of the city, as well as the vibrant and diverse aspects of the bustling, modern city. I walk around the Old City, museums, synagogues, parks/nature trails, the Hebrew University campus, restaurants, Shuk Machne Yehudah, and cultural and religious landmarks for Jews, Christains, and Muslims. I have had the opportunity to try the most delicious food from around the world and breathtaking flavors that I had never before tasted. 

When I am not in Jerusalem, I travel around the country to other cities, kibbutzim, moshavs, villages, or landscapes. In these places, I experience first hand Israeli culture, explore diverse Judaism, and embrace the Hebrew language more than I have ever before. I’ve traveled to coastal cities like Tel Aviv, Netanya and Herzliya where I’ve had countless relaxing beach days looking out onto the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. As one of many Nativ tiyuls, we went to the Negev Desert where we hiked for three days in the vast, breathtaking wilderness and slept in tents under more stars than I had ever seen in my life. We also visited a pleasant Moshav in the north where we spent a peaceful Shabbat and interacted with the welcoming locals. Much of the time, I truly feel like an Israeli: I travel around on my own across the country and visit friends who take me to authentic Israeli places where no tourists go. These “off the beaten path” places are one of the best parts of traveling and immersing myself in another country, knowing that I am living something that is so unique and so few people have the opportunity to experience.

This year has opened up new doors to learning more about Jews around the world, as well as Muslims, Christains and countless other people that I have had the opportunity to talk to. Communicating with people from other religions and cultures heightens my interest in other people from around the world and encourages peaceful and productive discourse that only inspires more exploration. I’ve grown to be much more independent and ambitious through navigating myself around the country, spending my own money, planning weekend trips, figuring things out on my own, and by simply being in control of where I go and what I do each day. More than ever before, I have experienced considerable freedom and responsibility, an exhilarating feeling that is simply impossible to achieve if I had gone directly into college this year. I feel that I am doing a lot of “adulting,” which initially seemed terrifying, but turned out to be completely achievable and satisfying once I got the hang of it. This year has given me new insights on the world and how it works, and encourages me to achieve intermittent goals I’ve set for myself. I have been able to engage in productive communication just in Hebrew, in which I have become nearly fluent in just three months. I have acquired valuable skills of self confidence and initiative by being in a land with which I was initially unfamiliar, yet still so comfortable and motivated to explore. By living in a country that is so unique, incomparable to any country on earth, I have also learned the value of resilience and passion for making this world a better place for all people.

This article was originally published in Fed5. Read the original article here.

If you have a high school senior thinking about a gap year in Israel, JumpSpark has wonderful news! The Zalik Foundation has renewed support for a second year of the Atlanta Israel Gap Year Scholarship pilot. For a second year in a row, select high school students will be generously awarded $10,000 towards a gap year program in Israel for fall 2022. JumpSpark will continue to manage this program which provides generous scholarships for a limited number of pre-approved, eligible Gap Year programs. (Learn more about eligible Gap Year options here).

Right now, 25 lucky students from Atlanta are having Gap Year experiences in Israel. They are exploring the desert, volunteering on kibbutzim, visiting high-tech startups, engaging in meaningful social action, and connecting with Israeli history. One of them is Ariel Goldt, a graduate of Walton HS, who chose the Nativ program for her gap year in Israel. She posts weekly on her adventures. Read some of her excerpts below.

Week 10: Last Shabbat on the Moshav (cooperative community) was such an amazing experience. I played Settlers of Catan entirely in Hebrew with 10-year-olds who didn’t know English while I didn’t know any Hebrew. Somehow, they won but I think something must have gotten lost in translation … or maybe the 10-year-old actually did beat me, but I guess we’ll never know! The family we stayed with did not speak English except for the grandma. The grandma’s daughter, her husband, and seven kids were also staying at her house this weekend. Oh, and a few other of her daughters were there so it was a busy house, but I loved it. Something exciting is always happening and I got to play with the baby all weekend! On Saturday we walked around and got a tour of the Moshav. It was beautiful.

Week 8: On Wednesday we went to a MASA event in Tel Aviv. It was SO much fun! The venue was so cute and Hativah 6 performed for us! We have been listening to their music a lot here, so it was so much fun to see them live! All of the gap year programs that are funded through MASA were there and it was nice to see all of our friends that are in Israel. That night we had a girls’ night in! We set up the laptop and watched Pitch Perfect, the first one obviously, because it’s the best. On Thursday we did some exploring around Jerusalem and found this pretty park! We walked around the park then grabbed lunch at the cutest cafe! That night our camp friend Jonathan was getting sworn into the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), so we went to his ceremony at the Kotel! I loved getting to see him and it was so special we got to be there for him!

Week: 7: This week we started our first official classes at Hebrew University! Now we have classes with other people in the international school. I have never been in one classroom with so many different denominations. Everyone I talked to was from a different country and it’s amazing hearing everyone’s unique perspective on the things we are learning in class! I am excited for the rest of the semester! The other night we last minute decided to go to a Hapoel basketball game! We lost at the buzzer, but it was still a really fun game!

Shalom! My name is Zoe, I’m 18 years old, and I’m from Atlanta, Georgia. I currently live in Yokneam Illit in a communal apartment with six other people and am a Shinshinit, which means I’m participating in a “year of service”. In the mornings, I work in a high school and help students with English and in the afternoons, I help out in a community center. As a shinshinit, I get the amazing opportunity to live and connect with Israelis and create a positive impact in my community. 

I’ve had several “wow moments,” but I think one of my favorites was on our first “komuna Shabbat,” which is when once a month, we all stay in the apartment and spend a Shabbat together. On Friday morning, we made a group trip to the mall, and while we were there, we found a puzzle shop. Now I’m sure you can only imagine how difficult it is for seven people to choose a puzzle. Everyone wanted a different puzzle, and we all disagreed on how much was reasonable to spend on a puzzle. But after a little time, we were able to discuss and compromise, and find two puzzles that we all were happy with. Then we went home, cooked and ate a beautiful Shabbat dinner, and had a very intense, very exciting puzzle competition (not to brag or anything, but my team won). Just the thought that we could all compromise and work together to find a solution really blew my mind. The situation could have turned ugly, but instead I think it strengthened our connection as a team. I’m really happy to be here in Yokneam, and I can’t wait to continue to grow and learn and experience more “wow moments.”

This article was originally published in Fed 5, a publication of The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. Read the original article here.

Sheryl Korelitz, Director of Gap Year Recruitment for Masa North America, works with JumpSpark and Federation to recruit students for gap year programs in Israel and match students with programs that suit their interests and needs. We asked Sheryl, the proud mother of two Masa gap year daughters, about the value of this experience:

Q: Why send your teen on a gap year program in Israel?

A: So many parents think of a gap year as a year off and worry that their kids will fall behind their peers when they get to college. Overwhelmingly, research shows that a gap year is incredibly beneficial for college success. Gap year alumni have higher GPAs in college and tend to graduate in four years. They are more focused in terms of their careers, and they develop a higher level of independence and maturity.

All types of kids grow during their gap year. Highly driven kids really benefit from time to breathe and flex different muscles. This gives them a year without expectations and less pressure. And kids who are not super students, who spent their high school years not feeling great about themselves because school wasn’t their best skill, they come back brand new! They walk taller, speak with confidence, and have had a year of tremendous growth and self-discovery.

Q: What are the benefits of deferring college to go on a gap year?

A: Kids have FOMO (fear of missing out), and I get it. They think their brain will wither, or that they’ll forget grammar if they take a year away. Some Israel programs have an academic base where you can earn college credit. But the truth is, your college peers won’t care where you spent the previous year. A gap year gives you a whole year to learn how to make all new friends — you’ll come to campus with that skill. You’ve learned to live with a roommate, you’ve done your own laundry, you’ll hit campus running. You’re not behind, you’re ahead.

Future employers will appreciate your experience, and the fact that you have friends from all over the world is a gift that you’ll have forever. And you’ll have BIG fun!

Q: What does a gap year mean for Jewish identity and future leadership?

A:  Parents are understandably anxious about the influence of the BDS (Boycott/Divestment/Sanction) movement on campus and students’ general lack of knowledge about Israel. A gap year is not meant to teach your kids how to be Jewish on campus or dictate a particular point of view on Israel, rather it lets them take ownership of their Judaism — discover how they feel about Israel, and what it all means. Their Israel experience empowers them to come from a place of knowing. They’ve lived it. They’ve met Palestinians. They’ve seen Israeli life and culture. The year empowers young adults to be strong in their Judaism. Being away from family, away from synagogue, helps students make their own decisions. Nothing is more powerful.

There is a strong correlation between Jewish campus leadership and an Israel experience. The Zalik Foundation, a funder of Atlanta scholarships for Israel gap year options, is specifically focused on this and I think it’s wonderful. These nine months spent in Israel are life-changing and I truly believe that they contribute to the Jewish future. I applaud the Zalik Foundation for seeing how impactful this can be. 

This article was originally posted in the Atlanta Jewish Times.

Celebrating the best and brightest local teen mensches.

Leora Frank, nominated by Congregation Shearith Israel, surrounded by proud family.
Leora Frank, nominated by Congregation Shearith Israel, surrounded by proud family.

On August 1, the 29th Annual Hadassah Greater Atlanta Chesed (Loving Kindness) Student Awards honoring excellence and menschlichkeit in Atlanta’s Jewish teens took place virtually. HGA partnered with JumpSpark to honor 22 of the best and brightest young leaders and mensches representing synagogues, Jewish day schools, and organizations in the Greater Atlanta community. Hadassah’s Nancy Gorod chaired the event, and Annie Fortnow, engagement manager, represented JumpSpark.

Chase Flagel, nominated by Congregation Etz Chaim, celebrates with his parents.

Examples of student volunteer activities include Ronald McDonald House, Young Women in STEM Mentorship Program, Atlanta Hospitality House, United Methodist Church Feed n Seed Program, DeKalb Youth Symphony concerts, Pinch Hitters, Chastain Horse Park Therapeutic Riding Program, a Judaica teacher, the Maccabee Games, and school supply drives, among many other worthy causes.

All Chesed recipients were invited to submit essays exploring what inspired their acts of kindness, their activities and the resulting impact on themselves and others. Hadassah’s Chesed Student Awards program was excited to present two individual monetary awards to the winners.

The Phyllis M. Cohen Chesed Leadership Award Essay Contest winner was Carly Spandorfer, nominated by The Weber School. She described dealing with a life-altering Crohn’s diagnosis and the active programs she initiated to combat it. She created a blog specifically for teens with Crohn’s and colitis and cleverly calls it her “Crohn-i-cles,” viewed by thousands.

Carly Spandorfer and her proud parents show the prize check.
Carly Spandorfer and her proud parents show the prize check.

The Linda and Michael Weinroth Chesed Community Service Award Essay Contest winner was Ariel Goldt, nominated by Creating Connected Communities. Through her community service involvement, Ariel discovered that she could make a positive difference in the lives of others by truly focusing on one individual at a time.

Ariel Goldt and her proud parents show off the prize check.

Carol Goodman Kaufman, guest speaker and national co-chair of Hadassah Youth Aliyah, explained that Hadassah’s Youth Aliyah Villages offer at-risk students in Israel the same opportunities as students here in the United States and said, “Kids make up 30% of the population, but 100% of the future.” (www.hadassah.org/youthaliyah)

Dynamic duo, Nancy Gorod, HGA chesed chair, and Annie Fortnow (R), managing director, JumpSpark.

Linda Weinroth commented, “For 29 years I have been so inspired by the Chesed Award recipients, their passions and commitments to their community and to the world. I have always been encouraged that our future is in good hands. These students did not choose to do something in order to be recognized. They were recognized because they wanted to make a difference and made choices that impacted others in positive ways.”

When I got to the start of my senior year and the overwhelming question of “what are you doing next year?” became the subject of every conversation between peers, parents, and teachers, something inside of me clicked. I knew that I needed a year before college to better prepare myself, grow, and breathe after a long four years of high school. I began telling everyone that I was taking a gap year, with little idea of where to even begin planning. My friends looked at me like I was crazy, and my parents trusted that I would figure it out on my own. I had minimal support, knowing no one who had taken or was planning on taking a gap year. Little by little, however, I began taking steps towards preparing myself for my gap year, and I haven’t regretted it since. These were some of the steps I took over the course of my senior year, that would be helpful to anyone else thinking of a gap year:

Get a Job & Save Money 

My first week of senior year, I got a job working at a sushi restaurant. I began putting aside money every week from my job, and slowly saving my way to a financial goal that I set for myself. I was really careful about spending money, and would remind myself: “I can either buy this top/makeup/whatever else I really didn’t need or spend an extra day in Tel Aviv.” Slowly, those decisions began adding up and I was able to put away more and more money. I also recommend working in the restaurant industry. It’s hard work, but it’s fast money, eye opening, and you’ll learn skills you can use on your gap year. 

Defer Admission 

I, like many other seniors, applied to college during the fall of my senior year. I was confused about the deferral process, and worried that it would impact my college admissions. Thankfully, I had nothing to be worried about. All of the colleges I applied to had a very similar deferral process (and I applied to 17 schools). I think it would be much harder to find a school that would not let you take a gap year, than one that would. After I paid my deposit for Georgia Tech (go yellow jackets!), I submitted a deferral request and wrote a paragraph about my gap year plans. Two weeks later, I was approved. It was by far the easiest and least stressful thing I’ve done regarding college admissions. 

In terms of financial aid, most merit scholarships from your university will defer with your admissions. However, in the case of many outside scholarships, it is not always possible to defer. I would suggest looking into any scholarship that you are interested in, and double checking that it is deferrable. You’ll also have to reapply for need based aid through FAFSA, but that is something you have to do every year in college, regardless of whether or not you’re taking a gap year. 

Every college and scholarship is different, so double check that taking a gap year works with the plan that you choose for future education. However, while it is not the most traditional path, you are not the first student at your university to take a gap year, so your college has a process set up for this. 

Do Research 

I’m the kind of person who loves to prepare ahead of time, but I knew I wanted my gap year to be different. I didn’t want to have everything planned out, so I could “go with the flow” as often as possible. However, I also wanted to prepare myself and go into the year with as much knowledge as I could find. I knew that I wanted to backpack in Europe, but I had no idea where in Europe I wanted to go. I began researching and educating myself as much as I could about different countries in Europe, which made me feel confident and less worried about solo backpacking. And the more research I did, the more opportunities I found. My plans changed and changed as I found more resources, and I feel lucky that I had my whole senior year to explore what I wanted to do. 

Reach out to Friends & Family 

Because taking a gap year isn’t the most traditional path, it’s a good idea to begin warming up your family and friends to the idea as early as possible. I was lucky enough to have supportive parents from the get-go, but I know this isn’t the case with everyone. Even so, my parents needed time to adjust to the idea of me traveling on my own. Instead of springing it on them last minute, I began introducing the idea of a gap year back in August. My community was very supportive, and gave me the motivation and validation that I needed in order to pursue a gap year. 

Daydream 

For me, the idea of a gap year meant a year with no commitments, no concrete plans, and (not to be cliche) endless opportunities. The best thing I did over the course of my senior year was daydream about what my gap year could be. Envisioning my gap year got me through the college application process, senioritis, and every other challenge I had this past year. While I heard my peers complain about how exhausted they were from school and how they couldn’t believe that college was going to be four more years of work, I saw myself walking through historic cities and working on a farm in Israel. I understood that my gap year would allow me to experience so much of life that I have dreamed about, and this both fueled my excitement for my gap year and pushed me through my senior year. If there is only one thing you take away from this guide, I would hope that it would be to dream about all of the adventures that are out there during a gap year.