How do Israelis spend their gap year?

It is fairly common for kids from New Jersey to spend the year between high school and college in Israel. But I never thought about what a gap year might mean for Israelis until I spoke to Eran Schwartz this week.

Post-army year of travel, sure. Maybe hiking in South America or meditating in India or even — we’ve all heard the stories — selling Dead Sea products in a Paramus mall.

Yet it turns out that a pre-army gap year is a small but growing phenomenon — particularly among the upper classes who can afford it. Mr. Schwartz heads the Yigal Allon Educational Center in northern Israel, which offers such a program for high school graduates.

The center is named for Yigal Allon, one of the founders of Kibbutz Ginosaur on the Kinneret, who went on to be one of the founders of Palmach, the pre-state militia; a leading general during Israel’s War of Independence, and then a government minister in the 1960s and 70s. He died at 62 in 1980.

The goal of the Allon Center gap year program is “to pull people out of their homogeneous environments,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Israel is small, but you can live in a bubble and not know people who are five kilometers from you.”

The program aims to broaden the horizons of potential leaders, using tools that would be familiar to many Americans who spend a gap year in Israel: informal education and travel around the country “to get to know its difficulties and societies,” he said. It aims to fill the gap in Israeli schools, which Mr. Schwartz accuses of failing to answer questions about identity and why even students and their families should continue live in Israel.

Mr. Schwartz was in the United States this week to forge connections with American Jews. He spoke in Teaneck at the Ethical Culture Society on “Redeeming Zionism: A Humanist Perspective,” co-sponsored by Partners for Progressive Israel.

Mr. Schwartz, 34, came to the Allon Center after 10 years in the Israeli army, where he was a pilot and commander.

“While I was serving in the army, I felt that as much as it is needed to protect the outside of Israel, there’s no less a need to work on the inside,” he said. “I decided to work in education. Which was very weird to my pilot friends.”

Eran Schwartz

Eran Schwartz

Israel faces a leadership challenge, he said. “Right wing or left wing, we hardly have leaders with a vision bigger than themselves. I wanted to help a new generation be charged with the values of belonging to something greater than themselves.”

Part of this vision of societal responsibility, of a new Zionism, involves concern for minorities — that is, for Arabs.

“Our Zionist project will be measured by the weakling and the marginal,” Mr. Schwartz said. “We Israelis do not give Arab Israeli citizens really equal opportunities. We give them seemingly formal opportunities, but not enough in real life.”

He wants to help tear down the walls between Jews and Arabs. Beside the gap year program, Allon Center activities include educational seminars for the army and long-term leadership training.

“At the center, you can see soldiers studying about leadership and ethical dilemmas and at the same time see Arab and Jewish kids getting to know each other,” he said.

So now the center is starting a new gap-year program that will include Arabs and Jews. For this first year at least, it’s recruiting Christian Arabs. It’s a new challenge, recruiting Arabs for a gap-year program. “It’s hard to convince them to even come,” he said. “On the one hand, we want them to be part of Israeli society. At the same time, we try to understand their resentments and build bridges.”

Mr. Schwartz recently completed the second round of interviews for Christian Arabs looking to join the gap-year program. “You need to really explain what they’re going to get from the gap-year program,” he said. “They don’t get the degree” they would from a formal educational program, so often they and their parents do not see the benefit to it.

At the core of the center is a museum established by the government of Menachem Begin after Mr. Allon’s death. But Mr. Schwartz is proud of moving the center from looking back to looking forward.

“If you take Allon’s spirit, the Palmach spirit, of being together, of being part of a greater cause than yourself, there’s a lot to be learned from him,” he said.

He sees all the center’s activities as promoting a humanistic Zionism.

“It’s the recognition of the Jewish people’s right to have a culturally Jewish state, that should not be at the expense of other people,” he said. “Being a home for the Jewish people is a huge challenge, but we’re just at the beginning of it. We still have not solved the other problems we have to solve.

“One big issue is how to deal with minorities and the Palestinians.

“Second of all, Zionism has to also focus on the socioeconomic sphere,” he added. “Israel is growing in the wrong direction. The gaps are bigger. More and more people are becoming poor. Israeli identity is being fractured into different sectors — charedi, Mizrachi, Ashkenazi.”

Mr. Schwartz can boast one clear-cut Zionist success on his part. He’s proud of convincing his French-born wife to make aliyah — and of bringing her mother, and,, a few months ago, her 81-year-old grandmother, with her.

The couple has a baby girl.

“I have to give her a good reason to grow up in Israel,” Mr. Schwartz said. “With all my heart I’m trying to make Israel a better place.”