Many students at Stern take gap years and spend one year in Israel before starting college; others come straight from high school. There is a small group of students, however, who take a different route before starting Stern. This semester, there are five students who came to Stern after a year of sheirut leumi. Sheirut leumi is Israeli national service and is meant as an alternative for religious women who opt out of serving in the army. Those who do sheirut volunteer anywhere from government offices, to museums, hospitals and schools. Generally speaking, women who decide to do sheirut leumi plan on making aliyah immediately and view sheirut as the first step in that process, as it makes integrating into Israeli society much easier. Yet for these five women, myself included, while aliyah was definitely on our minds, sheirut was not the beginning of life in Israel, but a year of exploration and discovery.
Rebecca Siegel, who started at Stern this fall, did sheirut in Ma’ale Adumim. “Sheirut leumi was an opportunity to see if I wanted to make aliyah, learn Hebrew, give back to the country, [all while] doing something very meaningful,” Seigel explained. “[It also gave me] a sense of what it [would be] like to live in Israel.” Over the course of the year, Siegel decided that she wants to make aliyah sometime after college. Once she made that choice, Stern became the best place to spend her college years, especially after her sheirut experience. Her strongest reasons for coming to Stern were the supportive environment that she heard about from friends and the fact that, as taking a gap year is common in Stern, starting college as a 20-year-old seemed less daunting. Siegel says her transition was easy because everyone was understanding and helped her adjust. She looks back on both her decision to do sheirut leumi and her subsequent decision to attend Stern with satisfaction.
The transition to Stern that was so natural for Siegel is not the case for everyone who returned from a year of sheirut. Yael Eisenberg, who did sherut in the Foreign Ministry, described her transition slightly differently: “I remember landing in America, the day after I finished sheirut and the day before Stern Orientation, marveling at the comfort and abundance America offered,” she said. “It was strange to go to the supermarket half an hour before shkiya, or cross busy streets on the way to shul. It was stranger still to sit in classes all day, feeling passive instead of active, coming to my dorm at night to do homework instead of walking each evening to my sheirut apartment to make dinner and relax. The strangest part was being around people at my stage of life who were grappling with similar challenges. I was accustomed to working set hours with people who were at least twice my age, working on projects very different from schoolwork, but challenging nonetheless.” Sheirut leumi is a year that, in many ways, resembles life in the Israeli workforce, Eisenberg explained. Therefore, coming back to school and having to sit in classes, take tests and turn in papers requires much adjustment. Additionally, there is also the culture shock that arrives when immersing oneself in a completely different setting for an extended period of time. While Eisenberg’s experience transitioning back to school was different than Siegel’s, she too does not regret either of her decisions. She feels more focused as a result of sheirut, and therefore more equipped to take advantage of all that Stern has to offer.
After speaking to both Siegel and Eisenberg, I questioned my experience. I did sheirut leumi because during my year studying in Nishmat (the Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women), I decided that I wanted to make aliyah, but like Siegel, I was not sure at what stage in my life I would take this leap. I remember the countless conversations with my parents and friends weighing the pros and cons of making aliyah right after Nishmat. If I stayed in Israel, I would go to college there: otherwise I would return to America and go to Stern. My mom was the one who initially suggested sheirut leumi. “Take another year off,” she said. “See what it is like to truly live in Israel, then decide.” I took her advice and spent this past year doing sheirut in an educational organization called the Midrasha L’Yeda HaMikdash, “the Mikdash Educational Center.” The majority of my sheirut consisted of traveling to schools around the country, teaching students about the Beit HaMikdash. My year was intense; it was extremely challenging, though simultaneously fulfilling. Over the course of the year it became clear to me that pushing off aliyah for a few years and going to Stern was my best course of action. I want to pursue chemical engineering while living within a rigorous Jewish community. There was no university in Israel that would allow me to pursue both of my passions at the same time, but Stern allows me to do both.
My transition to Stern was natural. I spent this past year in an environment vastly different than anything I ever experienced, and therefore coming to Stern was in many ways a breath of fresh air. I do still struggle with adjusting to the formality of life in America, compared to the go-with-the-flow attitude in Israel. I find myself continuously noticing the details of my life that have changed, from the lifestyle, to the language and even to the taste of the fruits and vegetables. I made my decision to come to Stern with confidence and truly enjoy being a student at Yeshiva University, yet with each passing day I wonder if I made the right choice.