Rewind three years. I had just entered high school and so much was on my mind. Not only did I have to adjust to a new school, but I had to adjust to a heavier workload. In addition, the dread of college loomed, although most of us tried to ignore it, and the possibility of a year in Israel rested on the horizon.
I did not grow up overly Zionistic and I had never been to Israel. It never even occurred to me to spend an entire year in Israel. Even though some of my peers spoke about the awaited year, I shrugged it off as a waste of time. I wanted to get on with my life, start college, and enter the real world.
College presented the opportunity to break out of New York’s Jewish bubble and the chance to delve deeper into my other interests like history, literature, and music while discovering new areas of study. I figured I would have enough Jewish studies in the next four years of high school. Little did I know that my view about this would soon change drastically.
I am not quite sure what brought about my change of heart. It certainly was not a specific event but rather a gradual change. As I started to feel the pressure of junior year, I wondered what it would be like to spend one year without having to worry about tests or papers and just learn for the sake of absorbing new and exciting material. I have always loved school and the idea of learning lishma, for the sake of learning, struck me as something worthwhile. The more I thought about it, the more the idea made sense.
The students in my grade happen to be very Zionistic — most having grown up in families that pushed their love for Israel. No doubt their influence made me rethink my plans. I remember countless chagigot, celebrations, with girls dancing with the Israeli flag, looking at my friends’ pictures from family trips and summer programs, and hearing others recount their years in Israel.
In my community of New Rochelle, there were numerous programs in support of Israel. Every day when I davened, I recited prayers that referred to Israel, the Promised Land. They soon came to have new meaning and to instill a love for the land within me.
My parents did not grow up observant and did not have the connection to Israel as others from their generation. As a result, they did not feel strongly about my going to Israel in the beginning. When the second intifada began in 2000, my parents were nervous about the possibility of a year in Israel.
Since the beginning of high school we had been on two family trips to Israel; however, it was a different matter when it came to me going alone. Safety and unfamiliarity with the land were their primary concerns.
Slowly, as my love for Israel increased, so too did theirs, and as I began to consider a year in Israel, they did too. In fact, one day my father came and spoke to me. He said that he and my mother supported the idea of me going to Israel; they thought it would be a unique opportunity to embrace and appreciate Judaism. They did not want to push it. It had to be my decision if I went and where I went.
Towards the end of 11th grade, my high school’s Israel advisers came into our lives. They began telling us about each of the yeshivas and programs in Israel. When it came to the schools, I was clueless. I was not sure what I wanted to do in Israel.
At first, I considered going to Bar Ilan University to get college credit while living in Israel. But, as I explored the multitude of programs such as traveling groups, yeshivas, and opportunities to work and live on a kibbutz, I decided to go to a yeshiva. This was a big decision for me — my grade was divided among those who were going on programs such as Shalem and those of us who were yeshiva-bound.
Shalem is a traveling program that includes life on a kibbutz, learning, and volunteerism while yeshiva life is mostly spent learning with occasional day trips. I thought to myself, when will I ever get the opportunity to study Tanach and Gemara again without having to make time for it in a busy schedule filled with secular subjects?
A yeshiva would provide the perfect balance of independence and a family-like setting. To live in the land, studying God’s word, without the hassle of exams and secular classes seemed like the right choice.
My parents are pleased with my decision to go to Israel next year, but they have some definite concerns. Perhaps security is the primary issue. My parents are nervous about sending me so far away to a place that many are afraid to visit. Another concern is the infamous “flipping out” phenomenon.
I think that my parents are even more concerned with the possibility of my making aliyah since all the schools I applied to are very Zionistic. Finally, we all have to deal with the distance. I have been blessed with a close family and leaving home for a year to go thousands of miles away, will be difficult for all of us. My mother is already planning to spend every vacation in Israel.
As the December application deadlines have come and gone, I am happy with my decision. It was not something my parents forced me to do and it was not something that I felt I needed to do. It was a choice that I have made freely.
I have found that the closer I come to finishing my senior year of high school and entering my year in Israel, the more confident I feel that I have made the right decision. While I wait for my decision letters — which will arrive in late January — I know that whatever happens, next year will be a year to remember.