Concerns about taking a gap year / studying in Jeruaslem
May 12, 2008 10:44 AM   Subscribe

I have some concerns about taking a gap year and studying in Jeruaslem, and hope someone might have some experience with either.

I'm graduating from high school soon and am planning on deferring my college enrollment for a year to satisfy my wanderlust and need for adventure. I was recently accepted to a program studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem's Rothberg International School (that's the school for overseas/ English speaking students). The program sounds really tremendous, beginning with an intensive Hebrew course in August, and then a semester of legitimate and cool-sounding classes at the university.

I've never been to Israel though, and I'm sort-of nervous. Taking a gap year requires a degree of bravery in itself, and going to such an ostensibly unstable place seems in many ways foolish. My parents are concerned about letting me go as well, and not without reason.

I really do want to do this, I think. I was just hoping someone might have some insight to offer to assuage my fears, or shed light on new dimensions to the issue. Do any of you have any experience with this or similar programs, or even just living in Jerusalem? I'm sure it's not as bad as it seems on CNN, but I just need some sort of a realistic idea!

Have any of you taken gap years and found them to be valuable experiences?

posted by howgenerica to Travel & Transportation around Jerusalem, Israel (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I did a gap year in Jerusalem, though not at Hebrew University, in 1994-1995. It was, as you say, a tremendous experience. I loved Israel and have gone back a number of times since then. I can tell you more about why it was so great if you like, but it sounds like you already want to go - you're just worried about the very real issues at hand.

First, there is the culture-clash issue - which may not seem as serious as the instability/threat, but can be very real. You will have to get used to living in a culture where your everyday decisions (like, say, wearing pants if you are a woman) will be scrutinized and judged as an active statement of religious (and hence often political) identity. Jerusalem, particularly, shuts down on Jewish holidays and on the Sabbath. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is something you should be prepared for. If you are not used to it, it can be very unsettling - much more so than the language issue, as almost everyone speaks some English, most people quite well.

Second, there is the safety issue. To which I would say: are you frightened about riding in a car? Your odds of dying in a car accident are far worse than of being injured or even directly affected by terrorism. It's spectacular, yes, and that makes it far more salient and terrifying than, say, crossing the street. But in practice, it is not likely to be a direct danger to you, and there's a lot you can do to mitigate any direct impact. For example, there are private (and inexpensive) taxi services to replace most inter-city bus travel if you are worried about that in particular. You should also be following the news to know how cautious to be on any given day.

But that said, the impact of the situation there is going to be constantly with you. You may not be in direct danger, but you will see armed soldiers on the street, be subjected to search, and know people who have been directly impacted. When there is an attack, the whole country is rocked - it's really not a large population, and the people around you will feel it very personally.

I think the assessment to make is less whether there is direct risk to you - because it is minimal, and can be mitigated - and more whether you are capable of coping with the inevitable stress and tension of the "peripheral consciousness" of violence.

I would strongly recommend you read Gavin de Becker's book on fear, and particularly the section on how we disproportionately fear small but dramatic risks, before you make a final decision. I would also be glad to answer more questions if you like.
posted by bibliomancer at 11:08 AM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

Something to consider: Are you planning to get college credit for the classes you'll be taking at Hebrew University? Some schools have a policy that you can't get credit for classes taken in that time period between deferment and actually starting classes.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:30 AM on May 12, 2008

I did my freshman year at HUC-JIR in 1988, while the political climate is different now, I have to say, 20 years later (!) it was the best decision I ever made. I grew up more in that year than at any other time. Most of my credits didn't transfer but I couldn't care less. It was an outstanding year of my life. I'd also be happy to answer questions if you have them.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:58 AM on May 12, 2008

I studied in Israel in 2001-2003, the height of the second intifada. During one week, there was a terrorist attack on a civilian target almost every day. A lot of my classmates didn't ride buses or go out on Saturday nights. At one point we were waiting for the government to start issuing gas masks to tourists (never happened). Even then, except for that one week, your risk of being killed or seriously injured in a car accident was greater than in a terrorist attack (crazy drivers though).

The situation is VERY different now. There is still security but since the fence was completed, bombings have almost stopped. Centre town was packed when I was there a couple of weeks ago. Saturday nights were buzzing. I didn't think twice about buses.

Avoid the areas in reach of the qassam rockets (I don't know why you'd go to Sderot anyway) and you should be fine. It might make your parents feel better if they talked to one of the groups that runs youth tours and asked them about their security precautions and guidelines.

I *loved* living in Jerusalem and had a great time. There is definitely a culture gap but that makes it fun. There is also a HUGE anglo community and tons of English language used books and other things that make it more comfortable for English speakers. The city is beautiful and very walkable. Tel Aviv (the beach!) is close enough for an easy day trip.

Have your parents been to Israel? Maybe you should all go on an exploratory trip, if it's a manageable thing. It seems so much more intimidating from the outside than the inside.
posted by Salamandrous at 12:14 PM on May 12, 2008

I live in LA after living more than a decade in Israel, having seen and experienced a furiously changing political and social environment. When I left late last year, I felt totally safe walking the streets of most Israeli cities at 10 pm and Israelis were happily filling up buses and outdoor cafes. You're more likely to get mugged or assaulted on the street of a U.S. city in broad daylight than experience terrorism in Israel.
posted by bondgirl53001 at 3:12 PM on May 12, 2008

Gap years rock and you needn't worry about them 'impacting your career' or any such nonsense. There are very few people who will think less of you for studying abroad and broadening your horizons instead of buckling right down to get the earn-more-money certificate, and you don't want to work for those people anyway. I have lots of friends who have studied in Jerusalem and they have all loved it profoundly.
posted by eritain at 4:01 PM on May 12, 2008

I lived in Jerusalem for two years, and spent a year on program in the south. There are a huge number of Americans in Jerusalem, so there will be a bit of a buffer between you and the culture shock. As others have mentioned, there is little to no street crime, and bombings in Jerusalem are few and far between, due to the strong presence of the army and police in the city.

I would move back in a second, if a job opportunity presented itself. It was great life experience, and something I couldn't replace.

If you have any specific questions, feel free to send me mail.
posted by lemonwheel at 5:59 PM on May 12, 2008

Definitely go. I studied Hebrew intensively at Hebrew University/Rothberg for a summer in the late 90s and learned a ton. I loved it enough that I went back to live in Jerusalem in 2000-2001. It's not like CNN says at all. As everyone has said, you're in more danger from car crashes than from any politically motivated violence. It's a fascinating place to live. Though there is a huge Anglo community, try to get out of that circle too to experience some of the city's many other communities. The school's program will offer you an excellent safety net, both socially and logistically. You'll meet interesting people, you'll see the city with them, you'll travel to Tel Aviv and Eilat and the Dead Sea with them, you'll study verbs with them.

I'm happy to answer any other questions you have about going. Definitely go.
posted by bassjump at 7:13 PM on May 12, 2008

I wish I'd done a gap year. I think that kind of experience (getting out of your comfort zone, learning more about yourself, gaining independence) is really valuable and the earlier (and more frequently) you can do it, the better. It's something that I'll encourage my imaginary future children to do.
posted by srah at 6:01 AM on May 13, 2008

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