Over the past two or so years, the COVID pandemic hobbled programs, infected students (and, of course, so many others across the world), and forced yeshivot/seminaries/gap year (YSG) programs to either shut down or retool to handle the new situation. The efforts to keep the flame of Jewish engagement burning were heroic, and I covered that experience in several other posts.
For the first time in almost two years, Israeli yeshiva and seminary representatives are arriving in the US, UK, and a host of other countries to speak in high schools and present to parents at Israel fairs in person and over ZOOM. And of course, in the shadow of this present uncertainty, students and their parents are beginning to ponder if YSGP is right for them and if so, which one.
At present, there are 22 yeshiva programs for young men and 19 seminaries listed on the joint application for women. This is down by three programs from four years ago when I originally published this list. In addition, there are many co-ed programs, university programs, and Israel experience gap year programs of one stripe or another. According to the MASA website, there are 37 gap year experiences. With the numbers and types of different programs changing from year to year, it’s hard to keep track and even harder to make an informed decision.
The seminaries, yeshivot, and various academic and experiential organizations offer a variety of superb programs facilitated by some of the most talented Jewish educators in the world; however, the nuances and unique elements are sometimes lost during the 20-minute presentations given at Israel fairs. Even ZOOM sessions and online tours and visits can’t provide a complete picture of the experience. Many of the people I have spoken to say that the process of choosing – to go or not to go, where to go, what type of program to attend – is simply overwhelming.
I vividly remember, years ago, schmoozing with parents after a large fair in New Jersey. The glassy-eyed family admitted that they were more confused after the event than before they started searching.
When students arrive in Israel, they often appear like deer caught in headlights with no clear understanding of what to anticipate. Beyond spending the academic year in Israel, they often don’t seem to grasp what the YSG program they have decided to attend offers or expects.
A further point to ponder is the way students choose. Often, students base their decision on where friends are going instead of which program is best suited for them. Yeshivot and seminaries and the other programs are not summer camps. Usually, within a week or two, new friendships are made, and peer groups realign. Students and their parents should investigate which program best fits them and matches their needs and goals in the same way they choose a college.
I have taught Jewish high school students, led summer programs, worked on a university campus with college students, and worked in yeshiva and seminaries in Israel for almost 30 years. For full disclosure, my wife and I currently serve as administrators in YSG programs in Israel. The following issues raised result from a career dedicated to Jewish education in Orthodox, pluralistic, and denominational settings. I have spoken with educators, parents, and students before, during, and after their year in Israel. This outline can serve as a starting point for further research and prod you to ask questions when meeting recruiters – including me. The first years after high school play a critical role in one’s future development. Making the correct choice may set the student on a path for life or, regrettably, be a waste of a precious year. I hope this helps you or someone you know make a better-informed decision.
Among several significant changes since I originally published this piece, the existence of Gap Year parents’ groups on Facebook and WhatsApp stands out. These groups provide needed peer guidance to parents and students but also sometimes present false information. Worse, these groups sometimes create pressure for programs in Israel to respond when they lack the ability to do so. I remember one parent on such a group demanding that the programs let parents know if Israel will allow their children to arrive in the country. Needless to say, at that time, no one knew, not even the Israeli government.
Here are a few questions, suggestions, and issues students and their parents might want to consider this week and in the coming months.
- Size and intimacy:
Are you looking for a large program or a small one? How many students are in each course at any one time? While many programs advertise a large staff size, the crucial question is not how many members sit on the faculty but how many hours each faculty member teaches or spends in the institution? A well-known personality may appear on the brochure when they only teach an hour or two a week or even a month. How much “quality” time will you or your son or daughter have with any faculty member? Some prefer to experience Israel more anonymously on their own, while others want to develop life-long connections to mentors and personalities.
Will the faculty or Rosh Yeshiva know your son or daughter’s name? Does that matter to you? Some students prefer anonymity, while others flourish in a more intimate environment. The fact that the program has a hundred or more participants demonstrates how many students they attract but probably also limits the amount of time and energy faculty members can devote to any student. Each institution develops a unique culture, and the teachers, administrators, and dorm counselors help direct and foster that culture, be it closer or more hands-off. A bigger program may have the budget to do exciting things; however, a smaller one may offer a close-knit environment.
- The makeup of the student body:
Do you want an Israeli program, a program for students from outside of Israel, or a combination? Israelis and students from outside of Israel have different needs. Israelis, whose home is not far from the program, require less TLC, fewer trips, tiyulim, and experiences and have different food expectations. They have “lives” outside the institution. If they run out of clothes or need to do laundry, they can run home. If they are sick, they use the Israeli medical system and can go home whenever they need. International students’ entire world for the year consists of the school. Programs relate to this reality in radically different ways. Does the program view itself as an Israeli program with a few students from outside, or does the administration see the non-Israelis as a critical component of the student population? Israelis often pay much less than foreigners. If this is indeed the case, how does that impact the overall culture?
What about students from other countries and backgrounds? The Jewish world spans beyond North America and Israel. Does the institution attract students from the FSU, France, Australia, England, Europe, South America, South Africa, or other places? Do you want to spend your year in a more homogeneous environment or spread your wings and meet other Jews from around the world? Befriending students from other lands can sometimes enable you to visit other countries after the year is over. I know many students who have spent a semester or year abroad in another country, rejoining friends they made while in Israel.
Is the program more like Teaneck in Israel, where students remain in an environment that they are used to, or are they challenged outside their comfort zone to interact with Israelis and others? I know one parent who complained that Israelis in his son’s yeshiva were more like scenery than peers, and others I know wish that they had been spent the year in Israel with more time devoted to interacting with natives.
And how integrated are students from various countries? Do they take classes together, live in the same dorm rooms, or participate in “foster homes” for the year? A once a week, one hour session with an Israeli might not be as impactful or as daunting as attending classes together. The amount of time spent with Israeli peers probably impacts Hebrew proficiency more than any formal classes will.
Some students thrive in an urban area, enabling them to experience the broader culture. In contrast, others feel that the more isolated program foster more religious or spiritual growth with fewer distractions. Some want to spend the year as close to the Old City of Jerusalem as possible, while others prefer the open space in a more remote and spacious location. If seeing friends is essential, how close is the institution to public transportation and access to where friends are spending the year? How much time and access will the students have to find their old friends?
- Worldview and philosophy:
As a teacher for almost 30 years, having taught high school, worked with college students, and been an administrator in several Israeli institutions, I noticed that students often ignore the yeshiva, seminary, or gap year program’s philosophy when choosing a program. They shouldn’t.
Many people reading this will most likely be considering one of the many programs connected to Yeshiva University’s S. Daniel Abraham Israel program or a school on one of the joint yeshiva /seminary applications. Most representatives are doing their best, to be honest, but also to attract students. They will all proudly announce that their program is “Modern” or “Central” Orthodox and “Zionist.” But those terms mean very different things to different people.
One question worth asking is the attitude towards secular studies. Will the school support a student’s decision to go to a secular college, or will the rabbis try to talk students into switching to Yeshiva University? Will a student who plans to continue to Yeshiva College or Stern find a supportive peer group? Which rabbis at YU do alumni of the yeshiva flock to? Does this rabbi’s philosophy jibe with the student’s family’s? Or even further, does the yeshiva faculty suggest changing from YU to a more right-wing institution such as Lander College or Yeshivas Ner Yisroel or even not going to college at all? Do the teachers at the seminary push marriage before college?
When I was the rabbi for the OU’s JLIC program at Brandeis, a student complained that one of the rabbis in his yeshiva told him, on the very first day of class, that the rabbi was sure that the student, in the end, would not go to Brandeis. This interaction jaded that student’s experience for the entire year. So much so that he and his parents told me about the harm they felt had been done. Along those lines, I have met parents who later discovered that the rabbis at the yeshiva disparaged Yeshiva University and pushed their students to continue on to Haredi yeshivot instead of college. While students should be free to choose their direction in life, parents also deserve to know what viewpoints teachers of the yeshiva or seminary support.
For those considering pluralistic or university programs, are there influential counselors or guides on campus? Does the program make the student feel comfortable if one keeps Shabbat or prays at set times and keeps kosher? I recently read about parents complaining that their child felt awkward maintaining family religious standards despite the program advertising openness to all kinds of traditions. Will the students feel positively challenged in such an environment, or will the challenge cause unwanted stress the entire year?
What about relationships with past friends or students of the opposite sex? Does the yeshiva or seminary frown on relationships during the year? Do they make students “break up”? What is their attitude towards coeducation generally? Does the yeshiva address sexual preference and LGBTQ+ issues? How does the faculty deal with students struggling with personal identity? What about racism? Do the program administrators support specific political positions, either Israeli or American or are the teachers careful not to discuss politics with students? I’ve met parents who were very upset that the yeshiva took political stances and even pushed students to attend protests during the year. Given the toxic culture which has developed surrounding politics over the last few years, this question seems more important than ever.
For coeducational programs, does the environment fit with personal sexual ethics and mores? What safeguards are in place for unwanted relationships? Being together in a close-knit group setting in which students interact daily can create challenges in this area.
How does the faculty discuss students’ home communities? Does the program foster a robust alumni network? What kinds of alumni programming and follow-up do they organize after the year is over? Do they welcome students back or do they see the program as a one-year event and students move forward to other components of their lives?
What do programs mean when they say they are Zionist? Do they support serving in the army? Does the program offer services for their alumni serving in the IDF? Do they push serving in Sherut Leumi or the army? What about the faculty? When they say they support army service, did the rabbis serve? Do they support their children serving in the military? In Israel, not serving in the IDF is a significant decision and attests to a particular attitude towards the State of Israel. Does the yeshiva say the prayer for the State of Israel, and what does the seminary do on Israel Independence Day? Does the program address the complex political situation, meet with Palestinians, and do you feel comfortable in the environment?
I think you get the picture. Seminaries and yeshivot are religious institutions and want to teach not only particular texts but also a worldview. Similarly, academic and experiential programs also create a general atmosphere. Parents need to ask themselves what type of worldview they feel comfortable with. Many students at the beginning of adulthood adopt the worldview of dynamic teachers. If this position clashes with the student’s parents’ way of thinking, things might be less comfortable upon the student’s return.
- Technical details:
Each program offers a variety of benefits and elements that a student and their parents want; however, no program can provide everything, and students need to prioritize those pieces which are more critical to them than others:
- Does the yeshiva offer college credits? All those on the S. Daniels Abraham program do provide transcripts. Remember, it is up to the college to decide if they will accept credits from outside. Even Israeli colleges cannot always be sure that their transcripts will be honored.
- How much Hebrew language instruction does the program offer daily? Often yeshivot and seminaries offer a once or twice a week ulpan, whereas universities demand a much more intense program. Some gap year-style programs offer an immersion-style experience. Keep in mind that it’s hard to develop both modern Hebrew fluency and text skills simultaneously. Often the student has to choose what the focus of the year should be. As noted above, often interaction with Hebrew speakers impacts more than formal classes.
- Student Life – what does the program offer beyond classes? Does the program run social programming, or are students left to their own devices? If the program focuses on social or internships, do they also offer appropriate classes and lectures?
- Do students have time for music or other pursuits? Do they have the space to play instruments?
- What, if any, sports facilities are available? Does the yeshiva attract students who participate in those activities?
- Tiyulim – how often and to where? Almost every institution offers “seeing Israel with ‘Tanach’ in hand.” But there are objectively quantifiable factors such as where and when the trips take place. Also, which trips are educational and which are just for fun and seeing the land? What is the ratio of “fun tiyulim” to “educational” ones? How do they integrate experiencing Israel?
- What happens on both “in” Shabbatot and “out” Shabbatot? What happens if a student has nowhere to go for Shabbat? Who takes care of them? Must they leave the dormitory for an extended period? Who supervises students who stay in the building on “out” Shabbatot? Does the program regulate where they can go during free time? What happens if a student needs help when away from the program? Do the administrators know where the students are at all times?
- How much and what is the quality of food? Does the school ever run out of food? What happens then? What happens to make sure that students are eating properly?
- Where do the students come from, and where are they going after the year or two? It is important to remember that most gap year programs run for one to two years, so the social group changes annually. It may be more sensible to see where the seminary, yeshiva, gap year program wants to get students from and how well their alumni are doing than to judge by this year’s group. The turnover is annual.
- How much does the program cost? What does the tuition cover (medical insurance, dorm, full-board cafeteria, laundry, phone, etc.)
- Safety, security, medical, and discipline:
Almost all the programs follow the safety regulations set forth by MASA and the Israeli Ministry of Education. But what about free time? Are students allowed to go out at night? Is there a curfew? What about spending Shabbat in friends’ apartments? One of the most challenging inhibitors to spiritual growth is the unsupervised time spent in parents’ apartments. One parent told me that his son, who had attended an Israeli Yeshivat Hesder program, felt that access to the family apartment ruined his academic experience since, once in the apartment, with all of its amenities, he didn’t want to leave.
In the age of COVID, what are the schools’ policies and procedures to prevent an outbreak and contain one if it happens? Does the program provide space to quarantine, or do they tell the student and parents that they are on their own? I recently saw a post by aggravated parents. Their son tested positive for COVID. As a result, the yeshiva demanded that his parents remove him from their facilities until after quarantine. The institution did not provide any support. The parents had no idea what to do or where their son could go.
Are there additional costs in case of an outbreak? Who will take care of the students if COVID spreads? Are you satisfied with the program’s vaccination policy? Examine the health record over the past two years. Many programs took proper precautions, followed regulations, and dealt as best they could with outbreaks. Other institutions did a less than ideal job of keeping both students and faculty safe and healthy. Some programs simply did not abide by regulations, while others were even more stringent than required by law. Each approach has its supporters and detractors. Choose an institution whose actions you feel were most appropriate.
In general, what medical options are available? If a student is sick or hurt, who takes care of the student and accompanies him or her to the emergency room? Will it be a (young) madrich or a senior administrator? How will parents know what is happening regularly and how open are the lines of communication? Does a doctor visit the institution regularly? What are the school’s insurance policies, and how do they deal with allergies and special meals when needed?
Besides physical health, mental health is also critical. Does the program pay attention to eating disorders? These are a common danger for students living away from home for the first time. What about other mental health issues? Over the past number of years, even before the advent of the pandemic, data suggests that student mental health has been in general decline. The deterioration has increased due to COVID. What does the institution do to check the mental state of participants? Are doctors and counselors on call? In case of a significant mental health crisis, what are the protocols to help alleviate the issue and protect the student’s health? If a student has an emergency or knows someone in such a crisis, what mechanisms does the institution have in place? If the answer to these questions is unsatisfactory, how safe do you consider the institution?
What protocols are in place to deal with abuse — sexual or otherwise? Is the issue dealt with in an appropriate manner? In the past few years, this issue has, unfortunately, come up in a variety of educational settings.
What is the school’s policy regarding drinking, drugs, use of electricity or phones on Shabbat, dress code, curfew, and other violations? How strict or lenient is the school regarding what the students do during their free time, and how will the administration react to students who violate its policies? Will the faculty know if a student sleeps in all day and does not attend classes or other parts of the program? If so, what do they do about it?
Some institutions are more hands-off, while others are more hands-on. In general, how often does the school communicate with parents? Will someone know and care for your child while they are thousands of miles away?
- Educational goals:
What type of educational program is offered? Traditionally, seminaries offered a broad curriculum while yeshivot concentrate on Talmud. Is it mostly traditional Talmud or does the yeshiva cover more subjects such as Tanach, Jewish thought, Halacha, etc.? Times and curricula are changing. So ask: how much of any topic is taught?
Ask for the actual class schedule so you can compare apples to apples. How long is the day? What happens with students who cannot handle the length or intensity of the academic program? Two yeshivot might say they offer Tanach classes whereas one may offer it one or two hours a week and another much more often. The same goes for seminaries. If Talmud is important to you – is it important to the teachers in the seminary? Do they teach on a similar level to men’s yeshivot? If not, why not? Do they have trained people teaching each subject? Just as not everyone is trained in Talmud so too not everyone is trained in Tanach. What is important to you?
What types of guest speakers and seminars are offered?
Basically, is the curriculum and approach focused or broad? Each style has its benefits and detriments. What is important to you?
In other words, what does the seminary or yeshiva teach and what can a student expect to learn over the course of the academic year?
- Should the student attend or go straight to college:
This is a complex question. The gap year isn’t for everyone. However, in my experience, students who spend a year in yeshiva or seminary gain in innumerable ways. Not only do students have the chance to develop religiously and think deeply and seriously about their future but they also have the opportunity to create lifelong friendships which will stay with them in college and in the years to come.
- The process and timetables:
In general, the process works in the following manner. Programs begin to send representatives to visit schools and communities in November. Before COVID, many schools ran information fairs for parents and students to meet with representatives of the various programs. Many of these have moved online, but some are still in person.
Following the period of visitations, students need to fill out an application. After applying, many programs require a personal interview. Following the interview period, the programs will review the applications and send out acceptances. There will be a brief period where students can then decide among the programs which accept them. The yeshivot and seminaries have dates to guarantee an admitted student a spot in the program. Because many programs have limited capacity, they often will not keep a place open beyond the deadline. Students are usually required to pay a deposit for the year to hold their place for the upcoming class. Below are a few of the dates and links to events.
MASA will be hosting a gap year fair online on November 14. On the same day, YU will be hosting a fair for seminaries during their open house for women and the following Sunday, November 21, they will host an in-person event for yeshivot at the men’s campus. You can learn more about those events by clicking here. As of this writing, yeshivot will be hosting online events on Sunday, December 12, and the following week, December 19.
Generally, the seminary dates for registration, interviews, and acceptances are first, followed by the yeshivot and then the other programs. All programs require filling out an application which usually requires a fee. Many seminaries and yeshivot, respectively, have joint online applications. The seminary application is https://www.applytosem.org/, and the yeshiva application is https://www.yeshivaapplication.org/.
The seminary applications are due by December 9, and the yeshiva deadline is January 15.
The choice of if and where to study in Israel is important and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Armed with the appropriate information, you can choose the best program to ensure that the year is a life-changing and rewarding experience.
This post is a revised and updated version of the one originally published in 2018.