In the next few weeks, many Jewish teenagers will pack their bags and head off on gap years abroad. There are suitcases in my home, too. I’m unpacking, because, aged 31, married and with a toddler, I’ve just returned from my own grown-up gap year.
Spending more time abroad was on my bucket list when I started work at 22. But roots get put down, and relocating can suddenly seem impossible.
My husband and I clung on to the idea and every year would ask each other: “Could we make it work next year”? In the end, a combination of luck, tenacity and willingness to take a leap of faith made it possible. I was able to live my dream and study Jewish texts at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
The principal appeal of a grown-up gap year is the sheer luxury of investing in yourself. As we get older, our responsibilities to others tend to grow. The privilege of a grown-up gap year is having time to pursue something that develops and enriches you, and can also be a pragmatic investment in your future development.
After a year of studying Tanach and Talmud I’ve returned home inspired by brilliant teachers, enthusiastic to share my excitement for these texts with others. Spending a year studying is an indulgence, but it was a focused year. And while my time in the Pardes beit midrash (study hall) might not feed directly into my future career, I’ve come back better equipped to work — both professionally and voluntarily — with more passion than before.
The students I learn with around my day job (I already taught adults and bar/batmitzvah students) will be better taught, and I’ve trained to prepare brides and grooms for Jewish marriage, a new passion. Investing in ourselves is not a selfish act, but something that makes us healthier, more robust people, better able to give to those around us.
Creating a year-long life in a new culture was itself a formative experience, in turn inspiring, entertaining and maddening. So much of everyday life in Jerusalem was an adventure and we were able to spend more time together as a family than in our hectic London world.
Your own gap year might seem like a preposterous dream but look into what’s out there to help you make it happen. Pardes offers full scholarships and a stipend to European students who commit to returning to their home country to “give back” for a couple of years.
My husband received a grant from the British Friends of Hebrew University for his MBA. If we’d been a year younger, Masa (part of the Jewish Agency) could have part-funded any of a host of adult gap years in Israel.
There is support out there for all kinds of study and self-development, so don’t dismiss anything as impossible.
And there are of course many ways of achieving goals without the drastic move of taking a year off work — several friends have persuaded their workplace to give them a few months of “sabbatical” time to travel.
Even a week away on your own on a retreat or spent doing a course you’ve hankered after could give you the refresher that will fuel your next phase.
Moving countries, particularly for a limited period of time, isn’t a simple matter, and there’ll be a lot of logistics to get your head around.
If you own a home, can you rent it out? Will you leave your work or try to take a sabbatical? Finances will of course be a serious consideration, particularly if you’re planning to study rather than work. Can you manage without a car there?
Once you’ve arrived (minimalistic suitcase relocation or expensive shipping) you’ll need to think about health insurance, phone contracts, and reading bills in another language. If you have children, will you push them out of their comfort zone into a foreign-language environment, or cushion them in a place where only English is spoken? You’ll need to be flexible with new systems and endlessly relaxed about things just not being the same as “back home”.
Finally, and this is a challenge I’m currently navigating, what will the inevitable return home be like? What if you don’t want to come back? (Luckily we both did). And what will the reintegration be like when you return to a world that doesn’t seem to have changed much, while you feel like a new person?
I find myself thinking back to the end of my original gap year when, aged 18, I returned to England fired up after a year in seminary, and was frustrated by what I perceived as England’s greyness and apathy.
I feel very differently now — I’m loving the temperate climate after scorching Jerusalem, and must be less of a zealot because I breathe a sigh of relief at the mundane and harmless ways people find to enjoy leisure time.
But there will be an inevitable period of integrating my two homes, two cultures and two loves. At the age of 18, my world-view was more black-and-white, so this was harder. Today, I strive to be shaped by the best of all my experiences, without rose-tinting one setting over another.
So the “grown-up gap year” has had even more impact than the pre-university one. As a more mature adult with a stronger sense of my views and values, I understood how the time away fed into the direction my life is taking and I appreciated the break from home responsibilities tenfold.
And, as the sun-tan fades and the biblical Hebrew lexicon gets tucked away on a high shelf, this precious year of carved-out time will continue to inspire me long into the future.