Yeshiva and seminaries in Israel: (How) we did it!

It’s official — the long study period from Sukkot until the weeks before Passover has arrived. The gap year yeshiva and seminary programs in Israel made it to the first significant-finish line. There is much to be proud of and much to think about.

Last June, I penned a blog post suggesting that the programs for students from outside of Israel should open. I made a few predictions about the upcoming year while also admitting to lacking prophetic powers. As late as the end of July, parents asked if we really thought we could open. At the time, I responded, “We will open. It will be hard. There will be starts and stops. We’ll have to deal with outbreaks and setbacks. But we are all preparing for this and will make it happen.”

Many in Israel and even some abroad protested. At the time, Israel had done well due to a tight closure after the Purim and into the Passover holiday season. New York suffered tremendously. Rabbinic colleagues in the city conveyed the horror of listening to ambulance sirens all through the Seder nights. By August, however, infection rates in Israel were on the rise.

My personal experience was less difficult. Despite massive layoffs, including my yeshiva’s entire faculty, I found comfort in my immediate family members’ arms. Perhaps not burdened with the terror of what was happening in some hot spots in the US gave my colleagues throughout Israel and me enough hope to pull together and plan for the upcoming new year.

By the end of August, most colleges in the United States planned on Zoom classes even if students could watch from the rooms paying full tuition. Most of the yeshivot and seminaries in Israel ran online programs during the early and late summer, and worked hard to open in the Fall.

Financial crisis avoided through partnership:

Thanks to the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, the MASA program, Mizrachi, and the Iggud HaYeshivot, we raised funds and worked day and night to procure entry permits. It must be said, not all my neighbors were excited by the prospect of bringing in students from foreign Jewish communities where COVID was raging. It was all very touch and go. But the sense of mission and partnership, which has rarely been seen, created a tense yet, in certain ways, thrilling excitement. By early August, we knew we could hopefully bring the students safely to Israel.

Funding was a major issue. Individual donors of every level stepped up to the plate. Even though we did not raise tuition beyond requesting payment for extra food during lockdowns, many parents understood the complexity and donated towards special programs. It is hard to overestimate how much these donations saved the day.

A new collective of major donors and foundations, the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF) enabled many gap year programs to maintain or even grow their enrollment. The trust, confidence, and financial aid made all the difference. In a recent podcast by the Shalom Hartman Institute,  some of those involved in ensuring this success reflected how Jewish institutions avoided the predicted apocalypse. Millions of dollars, thousands of work hours, and Divine assistance made this one of the most powerful years for gap year programs. Some boasted doubling numbers of enrollment.

What Did We Do?

Along with other institutions, we changed our year. Students coming to Israel experienced a very different gap year than previous groups. In my yeshiva, students were seldom allowed off campus for weekends, and free time was limited. We began the year by sending a large segment of our incoming students to a desert oasis for two weeks of isolation. It was scorching, but we promised live classes and kept that promise. We ran two separate locations at the same time, with faculty teaching at both. In the desert, we, along with another group, held classes outside in the heat. We ran sports activities and game events to keep our students healthy.

Once together, the constantly changing Israeli Ministry of Health regulations demanded flexibility and increased faculty presence. We built plastic barriers and, at times, policed personal hygiene and masks. Trips were severely limited, and we imported activities and programs. Certain recreational facilities were limited, while others had to be built. We hired both consultants for COVID-specific questions and mental health. At times, the situation demanded increasing visits of our mental health professionals.

Juggling quarantine, proper food service, regular educational programs, and capitalizing on breaks in the strict lockdowns often required 24/7 efforts. Everyone involved in gap year programs that I know worked like never before despite the pandemic’s shadow impacting our own families.

How Did We Do?

I can’t remember a prouder moment of belonging to the group of gap year Jewish educational professionals than this year. Unlike many other educational institutions, we pulled off in-person live classes for this cohort of Jewish young adults. And for their part, this group of students rose to the unique challenges of this year. The impact on their Jewish lives and the education of future Jewish communities will be unprecedented.

Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, despite teaching in-person all year, along with a few other institutions, avoided having even a single case of COVID infection!

Many if not most of the gap year programs battled COVID infections and quarantines. My institution, Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, despite teaching in-person all year, along with a few other institutions, avoided having even a single case of COVID infection! We followed the often-Draconian Ministry of Health regulations and frequently tested. Our consultant kept us up with the changes and helped ensure that we dodged the bullet. We made it all the way through the winter, a

Rabbi Berman teaching behind a plastic screen while students are in an isolated capsule.

and now our students, along with most gap year students I know, are fully vaccinated. Had they stayed in their home countries, many would have spent the year watching Zoom classes and still not have access to the vaccine. So I believe we have much to be proud of. 

The Personal Struggles:

While celebrating the institutional successes, I feel the need to mention the personal toll. Due to the many added expenses of the initial quarantine, increased food expenditures, added medical professionals, and numerous other costs of running a longer and more intense program, cuts had to be made even with emergency support. We lacked the funding to bring back our entire staff. Our older educators were locked in their homes for months and have yet to return to the yeshiva. Israeli schools remained closed for the bulk of the academic year. Our kids were stuck at home even as we were putting in more hours than ever. Family events were delayed, and some teachers missed important celebrations due to travel limitations and restrictions. COVID infected some faculty at other institutions who were incapacitated at length. And, of course, the most heartbreaking aspect was that even though none of the students at Eretz became sick, relatives of some of the students, faculty, and alumni suffered, and some even passed away. While institutionally, the year went well, as with so many around the world, it was a difficult and often tragic year for many.     

Lessons Learned:

We, our students, the Jewish community, and the vast array of funders have much to be proud of. At different moments, I and others doubted the wisdom of opening our doors. We cannot minimize the medical and mental health issues. The project was a colossal success.

The inability to travel offered a special silver lining of this terrible period. Too often, the demands of recruiting and fundraising take faculty members and administrators away from the real task of education and programming. This year our students held our entire attention as they should. For me personally, it was a year of growth learning one on one almost without stop with several students. I will always cherish this aspect of the year. Hopefully, institutions in Israel and abroad will realize that we can still run our programs with more limited travel. New paradigms of recruitment and fundraising demonstrate how much we can save financially and gain educationally by capitalizing on technology for many of these functions.

The increased awareness of mental health needs to continue. The danger present, given the unique complexity of living during a pandemic, will hopefully serve as a wake-up call to maintain these critical services. Educational programs that effectively teach Jewish tradition, impact students’ spirituality, and educate about Israel must also cater to emotional health.

Online education can’t replace the in-person connection; however, we have all gained new skills and an openness to reaching out through various platforms. In a way, COVID has forced us to learn an entirely new skillset which opens up new and exciting opportunities to engage alumni and adults. I am happy that at my institution, we could teach almost without stop. At the same time, we used technology to bring in speakers, touch alumni, and increase our connection to parents. The potential is limitless as a complement to the in-person component of our program.

And lastly, we learned that the gap year programs and the students who attend could be resilient. We, our students, the Jewish community, and the vast array of funders have much to be proud of. At different moments, I and others doubted the wisdom of opening our doors. We cannot minimize the medical and mental health issues. The project was a colossal success.

Indeed, the full year isn’t over until June. After the Passover break, students will experience the various memorial days, Independence Day, and Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah. But right now, with most students vaccinated, we arrive at the major break in the year. We accomplished and surpassed all goals and have much to be proud of. Indeed, we did it!

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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