In a few days, my youngest daughter leaves for ‘sem’ – a rite of passage for many in the Orthodox community and part of a wider phenomenon of the ‘gap year’ experience that allows over-privileged 18 year-olds to abscond from any responsibilities for yet another year. And I couldn’t be happier.
I still have the blue aerogrammes I sent home during my gap year in Israel in 1978. I still have friendships forged during that year and I am still so very grateful to my parents who scraped together the money that enabled me to participate – a sacrifice I didn’t really understand until I started putting away pennies so that my own children could have the same experience.
Well, they won’t have the same experience – Whatsapp, Viber and Facebook have ruined that possibility. Parents can now stalk their children and their children’s friends 24/7 – they can check photos, follow their bus from Tel Aviv in real time, order supplies online and send hourly messages regaling trivial daily events. Gap year maturity and independence are severely compromised by invisible-present parents who can now show-off about how ‘close’ they are to their children – the meaning of their lives not measured with J. Alfred Prufock’s coffee spoons, but rather by the number of text messages sent by their son or daughter.
Parents – treat yourself to a gap year. An emotional and psychological gap year from your children. Of course, they will never be far from your thoughts, in fact, they will be obsessively in your thoughts, but don’t let on. Haven’t you heard? Helicopter parenting is so over. Yes, you will still be busy and there’s the rest of the family to take care of, but your busyness quotient should be recalibrated with one child less at home. Take a history class one evening, volunteer for a community programme, put yourself on a rota for hospital visits, learn a new language, rekindle old friendships that have lay fallow during the years of childrearing. Use their absence to create your own gap year experience.
There will however, be no time to stop working as the gap year will drain your bank account. The economics of the gap year deserve serious study because the costs continue to spiral while for many families, their income is more precarious in the current economic climate and Brexit has impacted on the cost for UK families. A gap year is a huge expense and while there are subsidies available from communal funds, there is not enough to ensure that every 18 year old experiences a gap year in Israel.
Fostering Jewish identity and engagement in both Israel and the Diaspora has spawned an industry of policy-makers, educators, lobbyists, advocates, philanthropists, think-tanks and Jewish civil servants. Despite all the investment in Britain’s Jewish day schools, the evidence from a 2014 report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research suggests that they are not the most successful harbingers of Jewish involvement in later life – rather, the research indicates that the most important Jewish educational programmes are those involving an extended yeshiva/seminary experience or gap year in Israel. (Note: a cheaper option is Friday night dinner with the family which is also cited as one of the most significant factors shaping Jewish identity).
Birthright – a free 10 day trip to Israel – was conceived as a ‘right’ for every young Jewish adult. Given the millions of dollars that seems to be available for a host of new initiatives in Israel-Diaspora engagement, isn’t it time to think about a Gap year using the same financial and mass participation model as Birthright? That would really give parents a break.