My wife and I have just returned from a short, revealing and meaningful trip to Israel.

We traveled for four days with one purpose: to visit our 18 year-old son who is spending his gap year between high school and college studying at Yeshivat Ashreinu located in Beit Shemesh.

Jeremy (right) and Zalman (left) visit with Rabbi Gotch Yudin at Yeshivat Ashreinu in Beit Shemesh.

There was no time to visit with family and friends; no time for touring — or in my case, for business meetings.  We just needed to check in with our son before too much time had elapsed.  It turns out that we were among many others from Bergen County — and across North America — who were doing the same thing.

While Zalman has been away less than three months, we witnessed firsthand the tremendous growth already generated by time away from home.  We were inspired by the educational approach prioritized by his program.  And, we were amazed by his already deep connection to today’s incredibly modern state of Israel.

As parents, we could not be more pleased.  As someone who works in the field of creating meaningful Jewish experiences for young people, I see many lessons that have applications in our communal enterprise.

In three short months, our son has developed a confidence and passion for life in Israel and the language of the Jewish people that will be with him for a lifetime. We now see in our son, and in his friends, a camaraderie and connection which will serve them well throughout this year and beyond. They are developing independence and grit in this first year away from home, with a new support system they have built for themselves with the help of Ashreinu’s Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Gotch Yudin, the widely-respected former Director of Camp Morasha in the Poconos and former Assistant Principal and Director of Admissions at the Frisch High School in Paramus, NJ.

Ashreinu is an innovative yeshiva designed to challenge and excite young men who want to combine the study of Torah with a full program of communal, social, and physical development. At the heart of this successful gap year program is an educational philosophy Rav Yudin designed based on his years working in both formal and informal education. He believes Jewish learning should be combined and balanced between both academic and experiential approaches. Students at Ashreinu learn halakha (Jewish law) and study Torah portions in the classroom, then visit the locations in Israel of the stories they’ve read.  Just as important as academic endeavors, Rav Yudin’s philosophy emphasizes community internships, Chesed (acts of kindness), and volunteer projects to build and develop empathy, responsibility, and character.

Those of us working to enrich Jewish communal life in North America can learn from this approach.

First, it is no coincidence that many of the yeshiva’s faculty members grew up in Jewish camps and now spend their summers working at different Jewish summer camps. Immersive, experiential education works.  So often, we hear schools talk about trying to be more like camp. Creating and building community means fostering camaraderie and inspiring educators and students alike.  As a community, we must continue to provide Jewish youth with experiences filled with joy, while developing leadership skills in participants.

Second, these gap year programs help young people develop and strengthen a deep connection to the thriving, contemporary State of Israel.  On our recent visit, the cranes and excavators we saw around every corner offered a sense of optimism for Israel’s economy and future.  We were overwhelmed by the contemporary and innovative new restaurants dotting the traditional stone landscape. And Israel’s leadership in the advancement and adaptive use of technology can be seen and felt all over, even in the ancient city.

Third, we must not shy away from Israel.  While the issues in the region are challenging and real, diaspora Jews must play a role — which starts by showing up. These gap-year students have the opportunity to experience Israel first-hand, and to develop a lifelong love and commitment to all aspects of Torat Yisrael, Am Yisrael, and Eretz Yisrael — the Torah, the people, and the land of Israel.  We all need to continue to travel and experience Israel.

This short trip has made an intense impact on us as parents, and on me, as a Jewish communal professional consumed with building and securing a more vibrant, joy-filled Jewish future.