"Everyone should take a year off after high school," said Keene, 19, a graduate of Shalhevet high school who participated in Young Judaea's Year Course. Now a freshman film and psychology major at New York University, Keene joined 450 students on Year Course.
"Gap year programs are on the rise," said Avi Rubel, North American Director of MASA, an umbrella organization for 150 gap year programs geared toward getting more students to participate in yearlong Israel courses.
New programs are being developed because there is more interest, he said.
"Diversity is growing because of the demand brought on by parents and their kids," Rubel said.
Some 5,000 to 6,000 American students participate in Israel gap year programs, Rubel estimates, which is 1,000 more than last year, and he expects the number to climb. In previous years, Rubel explained, Orthodox yeshiva students were the dominant majority among participants. However, the trend is changing, with the largest number yet of non-Orthodox kids enrolling this year, he said.
Young Judaea, a Zionist movement of Hadassah, which has sent more than 5,000 teens to Israel since 1956, has tapped into the growing trend of offering many diverse tracks within Year Course. Ten years ago, the youth organization offered only one track comprised of three basic components: academic study at Beit Ar-El in Jerusalem through American Jewish University; community volunteering in Bat Yam/Holon; and the Israel experience, where participants engage in activities to familiarize them with the land and its people. This year, Young Judaea is offering six specialty tracks and five opportunities for trips outside of Israel.
Enrollment is up more than 340 percent, said Rabbi Ramie Arian, national director of Young Judaea. The various tracks can provide a forum for kids to make their own choices when it comes to the gap year, he said. Some of the specialty tracks include culinary arts, fashion design and medicine. Among the trips offered are The Zionist Revolution, which takes students around the world to countries such as Morocco, Ethiopia, France and regions in Eastern Europe, and Lost Jewish Communities, which involves travel to Portugal, Uganda, South Africa and India.
Young Judaea also offers religious tracks for those who wish to explore Judaism more in-depth. Shalem, for example, combines a Beit Midrash program of traditional Torah studies with other experimental components found in Year Course. In its second year, Shevet is a Judaic exploration track, which gives students the opportunity to learn more about Modern Orthodox Judaism.
Shevet is what attracted Keene to the program. Although she feared it might be too religious for her, Keene was pleasantly surprised to find how open it was, noting that it had more freedom than Shalem, the other Orthodox track.
During her time spent in Israel, Keene created bonds with her peers and became close with people in a way she says she was never able to in high school. Aside from making friends, teaching English in an Israeli elementary school and working on an archaeological dig, Keene was on a mission to find herself religiously.
For three months, Keene lived in Arad, an Israeli city bordering the Negev, in an absorption center that largely consisted of Ethiopian immigrants. Along with her group, Keene worked with Arab Bedouins, and it was the first time she met Muslim Israeli citizens. She was surprised to find "they are normal people who want peace," she said. "They taught us Arabic and we became close with these people. It was great because we didn't stay in the Jewish bubble."
The number of students at Shalhevet who are enrolling in Young Judea's Year Course is steadily increasing, from one or two to about five students per year, said Rabbi Avi Greene, Shalhevet's head of Judaic studies. Although the high school only hosts the Orthodox track Shalem to make a presentation on campus, Greene's top priority is to get students to go on a year program to Israel after graduation.
"As an Orthodox institution, we want the kids to continue to be observant in the Orthodox lifestyle," but, Greene added, "We support students in their decisions regardless of what they might be."
The variety of programs could be one factor as to why more students are choosing the Year Course, he said. "Sitting and learning all day in Yeshiva is not for everyone."
Students from non-Orthodox Jewish schools as well as interdenominational schools also are jumping on board to spend a year in Israel before college.
"Gap years are wonderful. They help students get off the treadmill of regular school, particularly if they have a commitment to Israel," said Joseph Blassberg, director of college counseling at Milken Community High School. Spending a year traveling and studying in Israel can give high school graduates an opportunity to broaden their horizons and gain a more worldly view, he said. Blassberg encourages the Year Course, adding that Milken averages five to six students per year who participate.
Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs in New Jersey, has been a counselor advising young adults on programs all over the world for more than 19 years. Bull's father founded the center in 1980, which has consulted with 5,000 students since its inception and remains the oldest gap year consulting organization in the country.
"Kids who are disenchanted by the mundaneness of school courses get excited," said Bull, who traveled for two years in Hawaii and Greece. "Sophisticated Americans are looking for this kind of experience. Participants on the year gap will come back well-equipped for challenges they will face on the college campus."