As students head back to the books this fall, Cheltenham High School graduate Jake Aronson will fly to Israel to work on a kibbutz, study Hebrew and volunteer with 90 other Jewish young adults participating in the Conservative movement's Nativ leadership program.
Even though the majority of college-bound Americans still go straight from high school to higher education, a growing number are joining Aronson in taking a gap year to do something a little different first.
Gap years have been a cultural norm in England for decades, but only recently caught on in the United States as colleges began promoting them as a way to gain perspective and life experience.
Teenlife.com lists almost 300 structured programs; the Center for Interim Programs, a private counseling firm in Princeton, N.J., counts more than 6,000.
Jewish agencies have jumped on the trend, too. While Orthodox students have long been taking a year or two before college to study at a yeshiva, there are now about 30 programs in Israel catering to kids from all affiliations. That's at least five times as many as when MASA Israel Journey, a clearinghouse for Jewish study-abroad experiences, was established in 2004, said Avi Rubel, director of North American operations.
According to MASA, 2,481 young adults participated in a non-yeshiva Jewish gap year program in 2010-2011. That's up from 1,500 in the agency's first year.
The increasing difficulty of getting into top-tier schools might have something to do with the upswing. Rubel said he's heard from students who took gap years when they didn't get into their first-choice school and reapplied while abroad, hoping the school would recognize how much more they could bring to the classroom after their travels.
MASA has also been doing its part to generate interest. For the past four years, it has even flown groups of college advisors on all-expenses-paid trips to visit the Israeli programs.
From Rubel's perspective, it's a prime opportunity to reach out to unaffiliated young adults in hopes of building Jewish identity. For that reason, he continued, MASA has pushed for Israel-based programs to serve more diverse interests such as art, politics and environmentalism. Even decades-old Zionist education programs, like Young Judaea's Year Course, have added tracks focusing on medicine, business, cooking, traveling and other specialties.
"If we have the right content to offer," Rubel said, "then people are interested."
The biggest challenge, Rubel said, is spreading the word about all the options so when a teen pitches a dance program in England, her parents can say, " 'Well, we want you to do it in Israel because you're going to come home with a Jewish boyfriend.' "
For Aronson, Nativ presented a chance to get a "more pure idea" of whether he'd eventually want to make aliyah. But the Elkins Park 17-year-old said any incoming freshman would benefit from having a year to regroup.
"I don't think high school seniors are mature enough to go into college where there are 22-year-olds and 25-year-olds in grad school and hang out in the social scene," said Aronson, who deferred his freshman year at the University of Maryland's engineering school.
His friend Matt Schafer, 17, also considered a Jewish program but said he "didn't want to be stuck in that realm."
Searching online, he found Carpe Diem Education's fall semester of tourism and volunteer work in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. He'll be one of only 12 travelers in that program.
An internship abroad during the second semester is even more independent. Schafer will live largely on his own, with access to a local staff liaison. He's got his eye on Italy, with a project mapping coral reefs off Madagascar second on the list.
Aside from a needed break, Schafer said he's hoping the program will at least help him narrow down "what I want to do and don't want to do" when he eventually enters Northeastern University in Boston.
Elana Friedman knew she wanted to study international relations before she left for Young Judaea's Year Course last fall, but said the experience gave her other life-skill advantages over her peers at American University in Washington, D.C. At a recent orientation, the Delaware native said she noticed that some people seemed nervous about living on their own. Year Course had counselors, she said, but they certainly didn't cook or clean for the participants.
Over her year abroad, she took classes on Zionism, interned for a Hebrew University professor and hiked through the desert, among other things. After doing all of that, she said, Israel isn't "just some sort of fantasy. I know I could actually live there."
"I have real connections to the Israeli people, they're my friends."
It was expensive — $21,000 just for the "classic" track, no specialty add-ons — but Friedman said her parents were happy to pay for it because they themselves met during their Year Course in 1980.
"It was kind of like my birthright," Friedman quipped. "The cost of living in Israel is going to be high, regardless, for nine months, so you might as well do it where you're going to be on a program."
In her case, it might pay off in college credits that get her out of certain requirements.
Depending on the amount of credit offered, some programs even qualify for federal financial aid. Enterprising young adults can also create their own, less expensive ways to take time off.
Myles Dworkin of Bryn Mawr "blames" his mom for starting him down that path. The 19-year-old Harriton High School graduate said he was talking about applying to college in Vermont so he could satisfy his skiing addiction when she jokingly suggested that he just take a year off to go skiing first.
"I said, 'O.K., I will.' "
Of course, he said, his parents "weren't going to pay for me to have fun for a year," so he applied for a job teaching skiing to kids in Breckenridge, Col.
Since ski season doesn't start until December, a teacher connected him to Pagus: Africa, a grassroots nonprofit in Ghana.
He flew there in September, where he and a University of Pennsylvania grad who also happened to be Jewish, embedded themselves among the staff at a struggling private school.
When they started, Dworkin said, the headmaster had two teachers and 14 pupils. By the time he left three months later, there were eight instructors and 130 kids. Aside from teaching math, English and art, the two volunteers also held staff meetings to suggest ideas for discipline, scheduling and academic curriculum.
It was far from an organized program, but that was part of the appeal, Dworkin said. The goal, he said, was to see if he would like living on his own in a Third World country, and many other programs didn't provide that.
Before living in Ghana, he said, "I never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from or how I was going to get from one place to the next. This was a wake-up call that this is the real world, this is how everything works."
Altogether, he said, the trip cost about $1,700 for airfare and $700 for everything else.
The only problem with taking a gap year, he said, is that he's not "overly excited" about the work that awaits him at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "Regardless of how you look at college, I still have to go back to class," said Dworkin, who's aiming to go into the medical field.
But, he continued, maybe it'll be fun. "I just made it on my own for the past year, I can make it at school."
'It's Almost a Given Among the Orthodox'
In the Orthodox community, the idea of taking a year or two for intense religious study in Israel before college dates back to at least the 1980s. But like secular gap years, its popularity has particularly mushroomed in just the past few years.
By now, a gap year experience is almost a given among graduates of Modern Orthodox day schools — "Just one of those things that you do," said Rabbi Shalom Berger, who has researched the trend and works for a Jewish education center at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel.
Altogether, roughly 4,100 students from around the world attended yeshivas in Israel this past academic year, nearly twice as many as in 2004, according to data from MASA Israel Journey, a clearinghouse for Jewish study-abroad experiences.
At Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station, all but six of the 41 seniors who graduated this summer are now heading off to seminaries. The students seek it out, said guidance counselor Barry Kirzner, noting that he still hears from parents who weren't expecting to shell out for an extra year of tuition.
As Yeshiva-bound graduate Uri Eckmann explained it, even though he'll be studying in Israel, there should be less pressure than high school and more independence "to go out by myself."
It'll be a chance to get a "true Israel experience" and "look at who I am and where I fit in," said the 18-year-old from Wynnewood. "And it's an opportunity to have that one focus be Torah and to experience that for just a year, just to get a taste."
Like other Jewish programs, the yeshivot have become more specialized in recent years with about 75 facilities promising varying degrees of sports, personalized study and so forth, MASA officials said. Even the more traditional programs that normally wouldn't want anything to disrupt their day-to-day schedule have added community service aspects, Berger said. A few programs now have options for kids with special needs.
Twenty years ago, "I don't think anyone could've dreamed of a possibility of that," Berger said.
There are so many choices that Kohelet has counselors who specialize in Israel studies: Rabbi Rafi Eis and his wife, Atara.
As far as mom Lisa Eckmann is concerned, the cost really is the only downside. Her oldest son, now 23, "came back with a complete and total love for the land of Israel," she said. Her second oldest returned much more mature with a "bazillion new friends."
"Instead of being freshmen in colleges in dormitories with zero supervision, they're in Israel and they learn to love the country," she said. "There's a lot of big decisions you have to make when you're first off to school and you don't have anybody to bounce them off unless you're lucky. They end up making friends for life with the kids and the rabbis who run the program."
Uri, her youngest son, 17, drew on input from his brothers as well as school staff when it came time to figure out the nuances of each yeshiva — from the quality of the food to how much personal connection he'd get to the academic rigor.
"I don't think I'd be able to fit in that setting where I'd come in and after a day or two be going 10 hours straight," Eckmann said.
He settled on Yeshivat Torat Shraga in Jerusalem, which has the added bonus of basketball and flag football leagues.
Best of all, he said, he'll get credit "just from going there" when he returns to start Yeshiva University in New York.
"They practically expect you to defer for a year," he said.