Many seek Jewish spirituality in an ancient hilltop city called Safed, where “kabbalah” — Jewish mysticism — and musical notes pour from open windows, and turquoise talismans are peddled in the streets. Safed mystics are drunk on wine and on G-d. I did not find enlightenment there, but I did have a heck of a weekend in a bare-bones hostel room that didn’t lock.
My weekend in Safed was one of many adventures that I arranged haphazardly with friends during my gap year in Israel after high school — and the only one on which I was forced to eat fish eyeball. If you’ve ever considered a gap year, it was probably recently, and it probably had more to do with COVID than with classic reasons to gap: burnout, finding yourself, making money, gaining life experience, pursuing a nonacademic passion, etc.
Most people do not consider gap years at any point of their school careers. Some dismiss it as the exclusive province of the adventurous, directionless and wealthy, likely to derail academics. Increasingly, platforms like Gapyearly offer advice on how to make money or break even while taking time off. Schools such as Princeton actually provide students with the means to gap. The people behind these initiatives believe that students will return to school more enthusiastic and better adjusted. They rightfully see gap years as proactive and purposeful investments in the self, rather than a sign that a student could not handle as much as their peers.
College years are formative, and you will learn about yourself and grow no matter what. But a gap year provides the opportunity to learn and grow without academic consequences, and that freedom can help you live a less stressful and more focused life when you eventually return to your studies. Students have the chance to make mistakes or the time to account for them proactively through personal reflection on traits, values, desires and other experiences and convictions.
Research demonstrates that students who take a year off before college graduate at higher rates, have higher GPAs and are more satisfied with their majors. In my community, we are fortunate that gap years are the default, and local Jewish organizations pool resources to make a year of study and travel in Israel financially feasible for every student.
Among my friends who took gap years — even those who feel like they did their gap year “wrong” — everyone agrees that there are definite benefits to taking time off from school. There is no single right experience, but there is certainly a right mindset: looking to be invigorated, recalibrated and more grounded. It is about choosing to have a multifaceted sense of self that is rooted in more than just your schoolwork — a self you can identify and choose to invest in continually.
You can’t derive self-discovery or sense of purpose — some of the benefits of a gap year — strictly through intuition or by reading someone’s op-ed. Experiences have to have happened to you personally to be imprinted in your memory.
A gap year gives you distance from the things you take for granted — priorities you don’t question, comforts you didn’t work for, successes and failures that meant something to you at one point or another. By removing us from our dorms, social lives and most basic physical sense of well-being, COVID is doing the same thing. COVID has provided a change of pace. I will not call this a silver lining, because I do not want to disrespect the suffering people have endured. But COVID has made it the case that, whether or not you actively take a gap year, this gap-year mindset of sustained and continual personal growth can be adopted and wielded for your benefit.
If the very thought of deriving benefit from the lull of the COVID era fills you with tension, I encourage you to consider that tension a platform for an escape from the rat race. A platform to recognize the gaps in ourselves and our identities — gaps that manifest as angst until we ask questions of ourselves that require time, intent and perspective to ask and answer.
Taking time away from the things that make up your everyday identity can provide a chance to live for something more. My friend compared gap years to the Jewish Sabbath, on which we pause weekday activities, still somehow filling 25 hours with joy and meaning. We should be content taking time for ourselves and should respect doing so on principle.
I did not always do my gap year right, and I will never eat fish eyeball again. But memories of experiences and conversations, as well as continued relationships with the people I met, still challenge me to move through Yale with healthy perspective. I came to Yale eager to make new friends, but was deeply comfortable finding just a few in my own suite. I came here not knowing how to take the best notes, but was deeply comfortable reaching out for help. I came here wanting to perform well on tests, but was deeply comfortable with just doing my best. When I became sick soon in my first year, it actually helped me maintain a balanced attitude toward school that I was at risk of losing in the tumult of Yale.
The gap-year mindset is about reinvigorating yourself not because you can’t handle what comes next, but because you are choosing to enrich your next steps. It is about wanting to project deep evaluations of the challenges you will encounter before you encounter them, rather than always needing to reflect on the other end.
At this point in our lives, a year is still a really long time — and that is part of why you owe it to yourself to take one. Nobody needs to tell a Yale student how precious time is and how much they can achieve in a year. Imagine what could be possible if that year was all yours.
MAAYAN SCHOEN is sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .