Will the Israeli gap year programs open this fall (and should they?)

The Danish proverb states, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” Some attribute a version of this saying to Niels Bohr, Mark Twain, Samuel Goldwyn, and the famous sports philosopher Yogi Bera. Predicting the past seems tricky as well. Given the rapidly changing understanding of COVID-19, it is also challenging to evaluate the present. Nevertheless, here we are.

Annually, thousands of students arrive in Israel to spend a “gap year” between finishing high school and beginning university studies. Full disclosure, over the past 20 years, I have been involved with a number of these programs. Furthermore, I am currently working in that area. While longitudinal research is ongoing, anecdotal evidence suggests that the impact on Judaism outside of Israel has been overwhelmingly positive. Students return connected, energized, and empowered. They are motivated to take leadership roles and drive the Jewish community forward in a myriad of ways.

The second half of this past year was challenging.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, programs were forced to confront the complexity of an unprecedented situation. The health requirements of the Israeli government created unexpected demands on the organizations. Some institutions believed maintaining students in their dormitories was not possible and recommended that students find safety in other accommodations, whether in Israel or back home. Other programs retooled their living conditions and schedules to enable students to remain. Those programs focused on trips and touring had to abide by strict Israeli government limitations and requirements for isolation, just like the rest of Israeli society around them. Most programs found outlets either in Israel or online using Zoom and other teaching technologies. Immediate funding cuts from various sources forced some programs to place their faculties and staff, along with 20% of the Israeli workforce, on indefinite unpaid leave. The situation for many, if not all, was challenging.

So what about this fall?

The various Gap year yeshivot, seminaries, and other programs are preparing to open in the fall. They are working together to share information, plans, and brainstorm on how to make the experience safe and of quality. Together with MASA, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Education they are working to ensure the health and welfare of next year’s students.  As of now, Israel has fared well, and the country-wide shut down in March seems to have impacted positively. Israeli students returned to school. Schools and youth groups require parents to report daily on the health of students.

It has not been without hitches along the way. Many are probably acquainted with Tomas Pueyo’s The Hammer and the Dance description in March on how to proceed. Israel hit the hammer hard, and based on the numbers seems to have succeeded. It is not clear how well the dance part is going. Thousands of pupils and teachers returned home in the wake of increased infection in some schools. Many expected this result, but some criticize the government for returning without better safeguards such as mass testing. Currently, the Ministry of Health recommends closing all schools for the year, but the educators and government have not agreed.

On the other hand, Israeli yeshiva and seminary programs have returned following a strict method of separation. Students are grouped into “capsules” of around 26 to keep infection rates down and to limit the spread of the disease. This method seems to be working. In addition, several of the gap year programs which continued operation have developed systems to keep students healthy. In some cases, students remained in the same buildings with limited social interaction for up to 9 weeks at a time. Instructors lecture behind plastic screens or broadcast to small groups using Zoom and other technologies. The process is complex and mental as well as physical health is a significant consideration. The current success of these methods creates a database of knowledge for programs planning to open in the fall.

As of now, parks and beaches are open; however, students arriving will most likely not see those immediately. Upon arrival, participants will be isolated in groups like their Israeli counterparts. An essential aspect of the Israel experience consists of seeing the land and meeting the people. To what extent students coming in the fall will be allowed to partake in those pieces is unknown and probably will remain so until well after arrival. The upcoming academic year will be like none other in the past. However, it can be safe and highly rewarding. Programs will need to tailor the educational and social components to meet this new reality.

What are the other options?

The default for most students has been residence colleges. However, universities in the United States seem to be waiting to see how welcoming they can be. Some have committed to online classes while others are looking at hybrid models of face-to-face on-campus classes mixed with remote courses.

College life during COVID-19 will be extremely complicated. Undergraduate institutions are designed to maximize socialization. Dormitories are often large and flowing spaces. Those responsible for the day to day supervision are often inexperienced older college students. Parties, sporting events, and large lectures do not lend themselves to social distancing. Colleges with 1000, 10,000, or even 35,000 undergraduates floating around campus will present immense challenges. In order to maintain a healthy lifestyle, the alternative may be for students to remain at home and attend classes over Zoom. For many, that will be a harsh pill to swallow.

In many ways, the gap year programs in Israel can more easily cope with the present health needs. The smaller gap year institutions which focus on personal attention and devalue mass social gatherings may turn out to be the best alternative to college in the fall. Unlike the colleges, dorm supervisors are often army or college graduates with more life experience who can handle emergencies. The faculty members at these programs develop personal relationships. They can offer one-on-one discussions in person or using technology. This approach might be critical from a mental health standpoint. Besides, the personal investment of the teaching faculty means that adults supervise the students. For instance, at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, the director is a first responder with Magen David Adom and has a direct line to emergency services. All have mental health professionals either on faculty or on immediate referral. Being thousands of miles away from home during a pandemic is not easy. However, the comparably small size of these institutions and the high faculty to student ratio ensure students are taken care of during their stay.

The “gap year” moniker may take on a new connotation. Between staying at home alone or with mom and dad watching classes on a computer or joining throngs of college students, the gap year programs offer a happy medium. Some institutions will even allow students to take college courses at night Israel time, giving them the best of both worlds. Some students, as this article about Harvard addresses, have recently decided that taking a gap year in Israel makes more sense than attending online courses.

What the future holds in store is only God above knows. We can do our best to help our young adults navigate life by offering them safe, healthy opportunities to grow. The year will be very different than in the past, and caution will limit the Israel experience; however, given the alternatives, this may be the best year to go on a gap program.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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