Every year, thousands of Modern Orthodox high school graduates come to Israel for their gap year. They hope to set a steady foundation for their adult lives as observant Jews through intensive Torah study, inspiration from their mentors, and experiencing life in Israel. Most of them will return home to start college, and while some choose to stay within Orthodox frameworks by attending Yeshiva University or Touro College, a large number will head out to secular campuses. There, they will encounter college life and all it offers: new ideas and social experiences, a diverse student body, and Jews who observe differently than they do (or not at all). Disturbingly, they also will likely encounter the virulent anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric that seems to be increasing by the day.
A new program has now set out to reconcile these challenges by empowering Orthodox gap year students with the knowledge and tools to both deal with life on secular campuses and impact their peers across all denominations.
Nitzavim (a term from Deuteronomy which refers to those who stand up in a leadership positions) is the brainchild of Rabbi Adi Isaacs, a Los Angeles native and a passionate Jewish educator. Together with Toby Kerekes, Director of Recruitment at The Rothberg International School at The Hebrew University, they designed an academic program that aims to foster peer-led Jewish leadership on campus.
From his years working with Jewish students both on and off campus, Rabbi Isaacs recognized the need to equip yeshiva students for the new world they are about to encounter. At the same time, Kerekes saw the benefit of building a bridge between academia and yeshiva life. They both believe that these students, typically educated in the Modern Orthodox education system and fresh back from Israel, are capable of connecting with other Jewish students in unique and unprecedented ways.
Amongst the various Jewish organizations on campuses in the US, Hillel International has also been focusing on ‘relationship-based engagement’, where students have been connecting with their peers. From their efforts, Hillel has reported that the shift from institution-led programs to peer-led programs has brought an increase in student involvement in recent years.
For Nitzavim, the peer-led aspect is what sets it apart: “Without a doubt, the professional Jewish organizations on campus are important, but peer-led initiatives, created and implemented by the students themselves, have an extremely powerful effect. These students, who already have a strong connection to Judaism and to Israel, can make a difference in a way that no formal organization can,” he says.
Rabbi Isaacs recruited educator and inspirational speaker Rabbi Akiva Gersh, and developed a curriculum called “Jewish Communal Leaders on College Campuses”, which is sponsored by Hebrew University. Those who successfully complete the course earn three college credits from the internationally-recognized institution and are offered scholarship options should they later return to Hebrew U for their study abroad semester.
“We see this as an investment into the students’ future,” says Kerekes,. “These are smart, driven students who would otherwise not earn college credits for this year. We are proud to be the bridge between their gap year in Israel and academic life on campus,” she says.
Last year, 70 students from 24 different gap year programs enrolled in the program. These students – a diverse mix of Modern Orthodox students from the US, Canada, and the UK – have now set off to 35 nonsectarian college campuses. The group spent their Friday mornings in interactive lectures and workshops on Mt. Scopus’ picturesque campus, learning the foundations of what it means to be an impactful leader on campus.
While the university sponsors all academic components of the course at no cost to the fellows, non-academic elements such as special workshops and Shabbatonim, are generously sponsored by the 7 Schwartz Brothers Leadership Trust of Long Island, NY.
Rabbi Gersh, a graduate of Brown University and Yeshiva University, teaches the course. Selected guest speakers are also brought in to share insights and practical tips from their areas of expertise. Last year, speakers included VC entrepreneur and author Michael Eisenberg, social media gurus Daniella Renov from Peas, Love and Carrots and marathon runner Beatie Deutsch, educator and innovator Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy, and international lecturer and head of Aish Israel Rabbi Etiel Goldwicht. Additionally, the students work collaboratively to develop an innovative project that will address a major issue for Jewish students on campus. The guiding principles are twofold: to connect with and strengthen the Orthodox student community and/or engage with the unaffiliated. The takeaway message is clear: you don’t have to merely survive the next four years; with the right support, guidance and tools, you can make a difference.
At Nitzavim’s closing ceremony this past June, a selection of fellows showcased their capstone projects in a “Shark Tank” fashion. In small groups, they pitched their plans in front of four judges, who gauged each from a different vantage point. Judges included Professor Yael Levin, associate provost for academic affairs at the Rothberg School; Eli Groner, former Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office and a member of the Board of Birthright International; Daniella Renov, and Rabbi Benji Levy. The winning teams received funding to implement their projects and will have ongoing supervision from the Nitzavim staff.
The “BMitzvah Project” is one example which aptly reflects the reality for many Jewish students today. The initiative aims to engage unaffiliated Jews who never had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The Fellows who created this program recognize how impactful the Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration can be for one’s Jewish identity. They also recognize the appeal of a rocking college party. Yet, for those who grew up disconnected from Jewish life and never had the rite of passage, the opportunity has the potential to strengthen their Jewish identity and catapult a curiosity into their faith. Their project therefore aims to encourage Modern Orthodox students to connect with otherwise-unaffiliated students, help them prepare for their ‘Bar/Bat Mitzvah’ by studying foundational Jewish texts together, and then host a large celebration college-style, replate with music, refreshments, and personalized swag.
Like the B’Mitzvah Project, all of the projects are innovative, creative and practical. They vary in scope, and all of them have the potential to engage Jewish students across all denominations in creative ways.
The collaboration between Nitzavim and Hebrew University has already planted the seeds for leadership. By empowering these students to be proactive with their peers, the program has the potential to shift the trends on campus and introduce meaningful interactions where there would otherwise be a void. These freshmen are now beginning their college careers. Equipped with a strong network of support and a solid plan, it will be fascinating to see their envisioned programs play out on campus. As for this year’s incoming gap year students, Nitzavim is ready for you.