Leo Belman hard at work on his social justice gap year program in Portland.
Leo Belman hard at work on his social justice gap year program in Portland.

Pandemic high school grads, one year later

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

A year ago, J. interviewed seven high school graduates as they were heading off to college or a gap year in the midst of the pandemic. Some were uncertain about the future. Others were disappointed that the pandemic had thrown a wrench into their plans. But a year later, most are looking back with a sense of accomplishment.

“Things actually turned around pretty well,” said Gabey Kaufman-Cohen, who ended up taking a gap year in Israel that at one point looked like it might get canceled due to the pandemic.

J. caught up with some of the students to see how their post-graduation plans turned out.

Sarah Berman, AmeriCorps

When asked what she had learned most during the previous 14 months, Sarah Berman gave a one-word answer: patience.

She has been teaching at an elementary school in San Jose through an AmeriCorps program called City Year. Her days are pretty packed. She helps lead virtual lessons and breakout rooms for third-graders, prepares lesson plans and leads virtual after-school programs. And once a week, she visits the school in person to help with special education classes.

So why patience?

“When you meet people or students, you can get frustrated because they don’t understand the material or they act out,” she said. “You gotta stick with them and see who they are holistically in order to help them the best. There’s no such thing as a bad student. You have to spend enough time to figure out what is going on.”

Sarah Berman in 2020
Sarah Berman in 2020

Before starting City Year, Berman was nervous about being a 19-year-old in a program dominated by college graduates.

But she got over that.

“Everyone has been very accepting,” she said. Plus, she already had experience teaching young kids during high school.

Berman’s last day of teaching is on June 8, after which she will be doing a biotechnology internship before heading to Dartmouth College in the fall with a customized major of anthropology and public health.

Ethan Finestone, gap year in Israel

When J. interviewed Ethan Finestone last year, things were up in the air. He intended to take a Young Judaea–sponsored gap year in Israel, but maybe the program would be canceled due to the pandemic.

Luckily, it was a go, and Finestone said his year spent in Israel has been “really cool.”

During the first half of the program, Finestone stayed in Jerusalem at a college campus and took classes in Jewish and Israeli history. For the second half, Finestone has been in Tel Aviv, interning at a company called Playermaker, a soccer technology company.

Ethan Finestone in 2020
Ethan Finestone in 2020

He said Israel slowly has become his home over the course of the gap year.

“Israelis tend to be a lot more straightforward,” he said. “But at the same time, very laid back. Extremely relaxed.”

He also went to the West Bank, which made him realize “there is no straightforward answer” to the conflict. “In America, everyone has their position on it,” he said. “But when you see it and see the people, you realize how difficult it is.”

Finestone will return this summer to work as a counselor at Camp Tel Yehudah in New York. He plans to study sports management at the University of Michigan in the fall.

Leo Belman, social justice gap year

Be careful with hammers. That’s what Leo Belman found out during the first couple of weeks in Portland with Tivnu, a social justice–oriented gap-year program.

Belman has spent the last year helping build platforms for homeless people to lay their tents on, in a project sponsored by a nonprofit, Cascadia Clusters. (He’s also built a lot of picnic tables, because they’ve been in high demand from restaurants for outdoor dining.)

As for the hammers: “A lot of us learned it’s easy to hit your hand … and that hurts a lot,” he said.

Belman builds twice a week, and another two days are devoted to an internship at the Solar Rights Alliance, a nonprofit that unites solar users in California. Two nights a week, Tivnu presents speakers on social-justice issues.

I felt like I had changed more in three months than in three years of high school.

Belman said he’s grown a lot living away from home and that he’s learned a good work ethic by sticking to a 9-to-5 schedule.

“I felt like I had changed more in three months than in three years of high school,” he said. “I had never been away from home more than a month or so.”

He’s also faced some adversity. During a heavy ice storm in Portland, a piece of ice hit Belman in the head and gave him a concussion. Months later, he still feels the effects of the incident and said he will take this summer to heal and rest before heading off to college at UC Davis.

Because of the incident, Belman has had to schedule his own doctor and physical therapy appointments and deal with his insurance company.

“Honestly, I think it has been a really good life experience,” he said. “I know I will get better. Looking on the bright side, all of these things are something I will need to know.”

Calista Sperry, Mount Holyoke College

Things were all set for Calista Sperry to attend Mount Holyoke College last fall. But the western Massachusetts college decided to make all classes remote and not to allow students on campus.

“It went as well as it could have,” Sperry said. “It was obviously a little disappointing.”

While the lectures themselves weren’t that bad, she said, there was simply no way to have an engaging conversation with classmates when it came time for group discussions.

Calista Perry at Mount Holyoke College
Calista Perry at Mount Holyoke College

But the online semester gave Sperry the opportunity to switch majors. She went in thinking she wanted to study politics and history, but switched to international relations and Russian studies.

For the spring semester this year, Mount Holyoke decided to have students on campus, but classes still remain online with students (including Sperry) Zooming in from their residence halls.

“I thought it wouldn’t be great, but not worse than missing out on the experience entirely,” Sperry said about the hybrid approach. “I thought anything was better than nothing.”

Sperry plans to return to the Bay Area for the summer, and hopes to work at a bookstore before going back East for her sophomore year.

Gabey Kaufman-Cohen, gap year on a kibbutz

“Rotten” was how Gabey Kaufman-Cohen described 2020. His gap-year program plans in Israel looked highly unlikely, with many of the participants pulling out because of the pandemic.

But then things turned around. The three-month program, part of Habonim Dror, the socialist Zionist youth group, ended up happening, and Kaufman-Cohen flew to Israel last September.

Living on the Ravid kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee was hard at the beginning, he said. A small group of students worked in an orchard in the mornings.

“You’d have to pick row after row of mango trees and then put them in big crates,” he said. “Then we did a lot of pruning trees and cutting branches and using saws. For a while, we worked on the olive harvest. It was long days of hard work.”

Gabey Kaufman-Cohen in 2020
Gabey Kaufman-Cohen in 2020

In the afternoons, there were lessons on Jewish and Israeli history.

“We all got very close,” he said. “We shared money, we shared space, we shared everything.”

Returning to the Bay Area a few months ago was difficult, Kaufman-Cohen said. Most of his friends were off at college, and he found himself feeling isolated and bored. To combat that, he has helped run virtual activities for Habonim Dror and recently flew to Washington, D.C., for his brother’s college graduation ceremony and to visit family.

In the fall, he’ll go to Goucher College near Baltimore and study creative writing. He’s prepared.

“I feel like being away from home, I have definitely realized it’s not going to be as hard” to go to college, he said. “Through the education, experiences [and] interactions with people, I’ve gotten a better sense of how I think and what I want to do.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.