The tradition of the “gap year” program – an opportunity that graduated high school students may take advantage of before entering college to grow, expand their knowledge base or have new experiences in other countries – began in the UK in the 1970s, but has now expanded to many other countries including the US. Mayim recently caught up with Emily Heaps, a participant in the Jewish social justice gap year program, Tzedek America, to find out how Emily is changing as a result of her engagement in justice work.

Mayim Bialik: What is Tzedek America?

Emily Heaps: Tzedek America is a social justice-oriented gap year program. All of us who are in TA just graduated high school; we are all eighteen or nineteen and we live together in a house with an RA (residence advisor) supervisor. We come from all across the US. We learn to take care of a house and cook and manage our finances, and for the year we are here, we choose to be part of a social justice-focused internship. Another part of the program is that we go on trips. We just went to Phoenix; we’re going to Guatemala soon* to do social impact work. And since TA is a Jewish gap year program, we do a lot of Jewish learning with different teachers and organizations; we go to different synagogues and spend time with different families to learn about how different Jews observe.

MB: And why did you decide to do this for your gap year?

EH: I felt as if I needed something that was not as academic as going straight to college. I felt kind of tied down in high school and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life at all. I think the biggest reason I joined TA is because I wanted to be a better person. I have been interested in social justice throughout my life and when I found this program, it sounded like a good opportunity to open up my world a little bit. Growing up in LA, I knew LA well, but I wanted to learn a bit about the world as a whole. Tzedek America has really shown me more about the  Jewish world, the Christian world, and I’ve learned so much about all religions and people.

MB: Tzedek America’s yearlong program features internships that you are assigned to, and social justice based field trips and projects. You were recently in Phoenix, AZ on one of these trips. Can you tell us about it?

EH: We went to Phoenix to work with immigrants and individuals who were being held in detention centers, mainly refugees. It was a learning trip so we went to a lot of different discussions surrounding the situation there, learning from people who had fled their countries to come to the US under unbelievable circumstances. We went to a detention center and spoke to two individuals (one from Africa and one from Mexico) who have been living in a detention center for about two years.

MB: Many of our readers may be aware of the larger conversation about refugees seeking entry into the US, but probably have not had experience talking directly to refugees about their experience. Would you please explain what a detention center is?

EH: When people come to the US seeking refuge, they are put into these places called detention centers. It is at the centers that they get their legal stuff in order such as their immigration paperwork. And they stay in this center until it is decided whether they can enter the US, or if they have to go back to where they originally came from. It was more or less a jail.

The people there were very unhappy, and they were so happy to have someone to talk to. Everyone’s story we heard was very similar: they were seeking refuge and running away from something significant; either death or something horrible that happened to their family. Some were mainly looking for better jobs to provide for their family, and most of them were trying to learn English. The man I spoke with was from Africa spoke nine different languages, but he said that English was the most important one for him to learn. His story and his words were very impactful.

They wanted someone to have a human connection with. And I was very happy that even in our short time there that we could provide that.

MB: How did interacting with refugees seeking asylum – and seeing what life was like in the detention center where they lived – impact the way you frame this experience in today’s larger discussion about refugees?

EH: Everything that’s going on in the world now is much more meaningful to me because of this experience. I’ve never seen any media [pieces] on detention centers, I had no idea what they were, and most people I talk to had no idea what they were either. The leader of our program, Avram Mandell, asked us what we would change about what’s happening in the world, and honestly, I have no idea where to start. All I know is that the people living in these detention centers and the people who are seeking refuge are humans, and they are seeking someone – another human being – to talk to. They want to have a home and a better life. It’s hard for me to say what my stance is on everything that is going on in the world, because I have no idea what’s the right move politically. I just know that I want to be able to help them in any way that I can; if that means just talking to them, or writing letters, or calling someone that they can get in touch with, then that’s what I’ll do.

MB: For teens and parents who are considering a gap year program like this, what would you like to say?

EH: On my first day of working at my internship at the National Council of Jewish Women, I went to Avram and I said, ”I wanted to be an actress but now I want to do something totally different as well: I want to work in this social justice world, and I want to work with women, and I want to study Women’s Studies in college.” It was a really big shift for me. Without TA, I would have never discovered this aspect of me. I know that when I go to college I will learn and expand so much more, but TA has changed my life in a lot of different ways. I’m now more aware of what’s happening in the world around me, I’m less inclined to complain about little things, and this has opened me up to so many different people, and different worlds; I guess I’ve become an adult thanks to TA!

*Editor’s note: The Tzedek America fellows are in Guatemala this week!

Tzedek America is currently accepting applications for next year. Visit TzedekAmerica.org to learn more or to apply.