Filling the gap

By Lauren Wallis - Thursday 22nd 2007f March 2007

FZY year course participants

The gap between finishing high school and starting university is a crucial time in any teen's life.

From being a relatively carefree child with few major worries, to maturing into a fully-fledged adult with many responsibilities, the transition period between the two can be a weird and wonderful time. Whilst some adolescents choose to continue their education without a year's break, the majority are now seeking out the ever-increasing number of gap year schemes in Israel in a quest to decide which is best. This can be a confusing decision to make. Should one opt for learning, volunteering or both? Jerusalem or elsewhere? A single sex or mixed sex programme? These days, the possibilities are endless.

For copious amounts of youngsters worldwide, gap years provide a welcome break from the solid stream of formal education that has been running throughout their lives so far. A gap year programme gives youngsters a chance to discover themselves and their abilities; living away from home really does increase independence and prepare them for when they return to begin college or university. Many people select a gap year scheme that is directly associated with their youth movement of choice. Earlier this month I visited Israel, where I spoke to participants currently on this type of scheme.

Joanna Arlington, 18, from Oakwood, is currently on FZY year course, a programme which offers a staggering 22 options to participants. She said: "I have had so many good experiences so far. I was volunteering on a safari when all of a sudden my boss told me to come and look at something amazing. I went to see what all the fuss was about, and saw a goat giving birth to twins. I have so many fond memories of working in safari, and would never have seen something like that if I hadn't been on year course." And FZY has a whole lot more to offer. With three main values of experiential learning, volunteering and academic achievement, it further increases its individuality by insisting on the inclusion of English, North American and Israeli participants on its programmes. As Mike Mitchell, Director of Community Volunteering, said: "You cannot spend a year in Israel without Israeli interaction."

Georgina Bye, 19, from Edgware couldn't agree more. A participant on the Bnei Akiva Lehava scheme, which combines Marva army training, Jewish learning, kibbutz work and ulpan, she has experienced firsthand what it means to live in Israeli society. She described: "Over Purim, we distributed mishloach manot to soldiers which was great. My highlight so far is Marva; I feel a lot more in touch with Israeli society. I got a really good insight into what Israelis go through, and it has made me so much more observant as I now notice all their attire when walking down the street. It has really changed my perspective on things."

As well as the Lehava programme, Bnei Akiva also offers the wonderful Torani scheme, a primarily learning-based initiative which aims to both educate and entertain. Separate girls' and boys' programmes, both located for the most part in Jerusalem, ensure that participants get the best of both worlds. When they are not increasing their religious knowledge, they are attending seminars, working on kibbutz, partaking in army training and going on tiyulim up and down the country.

In the North of Israel lie the current sites for at least three major gap year programmes; Habonim Dror, Noam and AJ6. The Habonim Dror one is divided into three sections; kibbutz work, seminars and volunteering. Jeremy Stein, 19, from Oxford, has enjoyed the volunteering aspect the most, finding working with underprivileged kids fulfilling to say the least. He explained: "When I was at school, I was protected by a virtual safety net. Coming to a school such as the one that I have been volunteering in has taught me how other people live, and has made me much more socially conscious."

The Noam participants are at present situated in Carmiel. Their programme is split into three; four months in Jerusalem on Machon (an intensive Jewish study and leadership course), 2 months spent volunteering in communities (usually by teaching English), followed by seven weeks of options. Jessie Schlagman, 19, from Finchley, explained how working with Israeli-Arabs has opened her eyes to a whole new world: "It has been interesting for me to work in a Druze school. I think that it is important to form a connection with Arab-Israelis, and discover our similarities with them."

AJ6, who have options including working with MDA, kibbutz, ulpan and yeshiva, are now volunteering in schools in Shlomi. Joel Salomon, 19, from Pinner, said: "One of the best things about the programme is that it is the first programme to have Israelis on it for the whole year, integrated as part of the programme."

Of course, the funding for gap year programmes can be extortionate, with parents being asked to fork out thousands. But this is where UJIA and MASA come in. As most people know, UJIA is a major charity that helps people in the UK and in Israel. It is the rooftop organisation for school trips, youth movements, summer tours, Birthright and gap year schemes in Israel, so it was only natural that it would be partnered with MASA. The UJIA has been selected as MASA's gateway in the UK. MASA is an Israeli-based organisation that approves many programmes of five months or longer, and provides opportunities for bursary applications and scholarships.

Adam Saville, Director of UJIA Israel Experience explained: "The application process for UJIA and MASA bursaries is very straightforward. If you are joining a youth movement programme, you will be sent a form on request which will be passed on to the UJIA and MASA for processing. It is done in this way as all bursaries are a partnership of the family, the youth movement, UJIA and MASA. The process is entirely confidential."

As Minister of Tourism, Isaac Herzog, said at a recent press conference: "I am a staunch believer that MASA can aid people who want to take their relationship with Israel to new depths and explore the intricacies of the country." Evidently passionate, he continued: "If we don't meet the challenge of this generation, we will lose a lot. Moving towards dialogue and finding a compromise is key. Money markets are strong, but it is still important to mitigate social gaps."

To find out more about gap year programmes and other opportunities in Israel, log on to Bursary requests for all programmes should be addressed to Rachel Nissim, MASA coordinator in the UK ( or 020 8369 5261).