Young Judaea's Year Course, like many educational programs, has recently endured
cutbacks and restructuring. As a former Young Judaean who occasionally lectures there, I have
been asked repeatedly, "Is the program as good as it was?" Unsure myself, I arranged an
informal Year Course focus group. I did not want to compare – because students cannot compare
experiences either – but to learn about today's experiences.
The resulting exuberant, exhilarating, occasionally existential 90-minute discussion
showed that Year Course is still Zionist, thought-provoking, identity-building and life-changing
– after all these years.
Of the 11 participants, a few had never been Young Judaeans, most grew
up in the movement, some had Young Judaean parents. Next year, the students will attend
Stanford and Barnard, Northeastern and Tufts, George Washington and Southern Methodist
universities. Each of their opening vignettes describing their "best" experience reflected the
program's vitality – and the allure for young Jews, whatever their background, of spending that"gap year" between high school and college in Israel.
Year Course this year is divided into three sections which alternate between Arad,
Jerusalem, and Bat Yam, where they study and volunteer. The 11, along with 81 others, began in
Arad, spent the last three months in Jerusalem's Bakka neighborhood, and will end in Bat Yam.
Their stories merged into a chorus rhapsodizing about the joys of being young, footloose and
open to the Israel adventure.
Lizzie Feldman from Maryland enjoyed the quiet spirituality of walking one Shabbat
afternoon with friends to the Western Wall and finding it "empty" so she could pray close to the
Wall. Eric Alterman from Texas wanders the country with friends, stopping at random places
and hiking. "Last weekend, we walked through a citrus orchard in the lower Galilee, then found
the Garden of Eden" he exclaimed.
Jacob Plitman from North Carolina wandered south of Arad and found "a hole in the
desert 20 feet down into utter darkness." He returned with "nine guys" and "30 feet of climbing
rope." Descending into the pit, they found some abandoned items, which "ignited an old murder
mystery, a Hardy Boys mystery."
Another Texan, Ethan Waranch "rapped for some Palestinian guys on a bus. We were
returning from a Hapoel Yerushalayim basketball game and there were three Palestinian dudes.
One guy dropped a line, another dropped a beat, and I continued."
Others praised the formal program. Noah Berman from Minnesota, who was Young
Judaea's National President last year, found his experiences volunteering with Sudanese refugees
in Arad "life-changing."
The volunteers had a major impact. They felt connected to the residents, 92 Americans
bicycling around the small town – although many bicycles disappeared (a problem solved for the
second group through effective community intervention).
Stephanie Gold of New Jersey, whose parents "met on Year Course," said that hearing
different speakers in her Zionism class helped her think about Israel and Aliyah "more
When I asked if any teachers inspired them, half a dozen shouted "Steve Copeland,"
praising their magical, mystical, "mind-blowing" educator teaching "The Parables of Genesis."
Howie Abrams from Minnesota, who is "just exploring the land and having a great time
doing it," noted that "when you go a year without seeing your family – or only seeing them once
– you learn how to mature yourself by yourself or with a group." Calling it "a pivotal growth
year," Alon Elhanan from New York reflected on "the transition from being American teenagers
to being in a country that at its core is very different. When we have free time we don't just
watch TV in our room." Alterman called it "going beyond a bubble … not just being a bystander
and letting the time pass."
Shoshana Nolan from Illinois felt blessed by "amazing roommates … people I'll be in
touch with for the rest of my life." Back home, many were shocked she did not go straight to
college. But, she insisted, "I'm not taking a year off, I'm taking a year on." For Shoshana,
"being in Israel surrounded by Jews.... I've been able to work my way through issues around my
identity. I would never do this in Chicago." Clearly, this Israel experience enhanced the
participants' Jewish identities.
Mariel Garcia from Texas, whose father discovered the program online, said: "My
Hebrew has gotten so much better. I can now have actual conversations with Israelis." As a
result, "I feel like I am much more in touch with my Jewish Identity, I'm keeping Shabbat for the
first time." Ariel Bronstein from New York feels "more Jewish –I feel the holidays. Everyone
feels it. It's part of the culture." For Alterman "talking to my friends has given me the
opportunity to pinpoint where my Judaism lies."
Especially in Jerusalem, they missed contact with Israeli peers, hoping to meet "better
role models" than the ones they encountered in bars "hitting on their friends." Still, all
appreciated the opportunity to engage Israel seriously -- and wanted to be taken seriously.
"Being here for a year, it changes from a tourist trap to a real place, it's no longer just funsies,"
Waranch said. "I feel like a resident minus," almost the real thing.
Reconciling Israel's realities with their Zionist dreams was "very exciting and
disappointing." Most evolved a more practical Zionism. "Since coming here my Zionism has
changed…" Noah Berman admitted. "I felt so Zionist in Arad…. I want to build this city, in the
physical sense. It's doable here. In the States it's not. I can actually change the way Jewish
history can look."
All love Israel, but future plans vary, from making aliyah and joining the army right
after college to hoping to buy a second home here one day. The students were grappling with the
cultural divide, the career sacrifices. "Israel pushes Aliyah, not Year course," Elhanan
explained, "just being in Israel raises the question."
The students had complaints, especially about learning Hebrew only two days a week.
With the newer emphasis on individual experiences and apartment living, some missed the
"group" sense they assumed earlier Year Courses had.
What most impressed me, and made me nostalgic, was their engagement with ideas.
Some have christened their ongoing nightly seminars about Judaism, Zionism, life itself, "the
Freelance Philosophers' Club." Others, though less flamboyant, are no less thoughtful. All take
ideas seriously, as tools that will shape their lives. They cherish Israel as the setting to shape
their identity with close friends. That is the magic of Zionism and the Israel experience. How
reassuring, in 2010, to see it persisting.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the
author of "Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges Of Today."