Book Review: Find Your Right Direction: The Israel Gap Year Guide by Phyllis Folb (Redwood Publishing 2020, 285 pp.)
Reviewed by Devorah Talia Gordon
Excitement and sound advice exude from Find Your Right Direction: The Israel Gap Year Guide, written by college counselor and AIGYA founder, Phyllis Folb. Folb developed a passion for the Jewish teen’s gap year in Israel—the year following high school before beginning college—after seeing a couple of disturbing scenarios. In her profession, she saw too many teens either experience burnout by the time they reached college or arrive still unclear about their goals. After witnessing the wonderful experience each of her daughters had during their “gap year” in Israel, Folb realized this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was pivotal.
She had to get the word out. “I considered the experience an investment in her soul. My daughter did not defer her education but began a path of continued learning, self-exploration, and spiritual growth that brought her happiness and direction that has helped her navigate her life.”
In 2013, Folb founded the American Israel Gap Year Association (AIGYA), taking on the task to make sure Jewish teens not only have the gap year experience, but flourish during it. She was bursting with information about the programs and has taken her wealth of information and done a tremendous service for students, families, and counselors by creating this treasure trove of a guide.
Folb first provides the reader with background about why a Jewish student would benefit from a gap year in Israel, including learning about oneself, gaining life experience and, of course, solidifying one’s Jewish identity. Folb writes, “Israel is the only place where Judaism can be fully expressed rather than as a minority religion existing at the margins of another country’s majority religion. Israel is a place where Judaism can be lived.” Rather than being didactic, Folb presents Judaism and the choices one makes in his or her observance as just that—choices to be made. Those choices can be greatly impacted by spending a year away from home, at this time of personal growth and exploration.
Another huge benefit of the gap year, writes Folb, is connecting to the Land of Israel, and experiencing Israel firsthand, as opposed to relying on the media reports. In an age where anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are escalating on college campuses, this experience is an important preparation for Jewish students.
Folb also outlines the many areas that a student could explore in Israel, given the vast array of industries Israel excels in, from high-tech, to agriculture, to fashion and medicine. The book also discusses options beyond, or in addition to, learning in a classroom setting, such as interning, experiential learning (kibbutz, animal care, agriculture), traveling the country, and volunteering in a wide array of programs. While Folb recommends a full-year experience in a structured program, she also discusses shorter programs, or perhaps doing two programs back to back.
The guide also provides multiple pages of worksheets, including a gap year quiz with questions students can ask themselves to help them pick the best program for them and detailed questions to ask gap year program representatives. Throughout the book are insightful quotes from former “gappers” about their experiences.
The bulk of the book is the program guide, where Folb describes more than sixty programs, including co-ed, women’s, and men’s programs, from secular to Orthodox. Each listing has contact information, descriptions/philosophy of program, cost, accommodations, and highlights. The guide is well-organized, jam-packed with information, and covers a wide breadth of types of programs available to gappers.
When asked about how the Israel gap year programs are responding to COVID-19, Folb said that Israel is one of only four countries that opened for long-term gap year students. “By in large, all of the programs are going above and beyond the call of duty, in spite of the challenges.” Folb said programs are doing as much as they can to make it work, including providing larger living spaces, additional buses, and the like. “The programs are taking the guidelines seriously and doing whatever they can to keep their students comfortable and engaged in productive activities.”
Of course, Folb recommends every student and family have a “heart-to-heart” talk with the individual program(s) they are considering, to see what they will be doing to provide a safe environment for their students. “Israelis are tackling it. They care so deeply about the gap year; they know it’s so important for Jewish identity and connection to Israel.”
Phyllis Folb is committed to make the gap year not a “goof” year but a “bridge to cross over” to new experiences, a year filled with self-awareness and discovery. A wise first step is for the interested teen to ask herself questions about what inspires her, what she is drawn to—in life, work, and about being Jewish—using this resource for direction and practical advice.