Last fall, as her peers fanned out to colleges across the country, Dana Feldman made what in the leafy Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Ill., was an unusual choice: She headed for Israel to spend the year studying and volunteering.After taking Jewish studies and ulpan classes at Hebrew University during the fall semester, Feldman is spending the second half of her year abroad working with new immigrants at a Beersheva absorption center.
“I think it’s important for people to come here and really see Israeli society, not just as part of a summer program or birthright or a bar and bat mitzvah trip, but to live, to study, to give back,” said the 19-year-old, who is taking part in the Nativ program affiliated with the Conservative movement.Though she had intended to study next fall, after a yearlong deferral, at the University of Maryland, Feldman recently decided to immigrate permanently to the Jewish state and join the Israeli army after she completes Nativ. She knows that means straying from the “set track” of many of her peers back home.“You’re supposed to graduate from high school and go straight to college,” she said. “You’re supposed to graduate from college and get a job. … That track isn’t for me.”
A growing number of non-Orthodox teens who are choosing to spend a post-high school year in Israel agree.In the Modern Orthodox community, bridging the gap between high school and college with a year of Israel study has long been a rite of passage. Now it’s gaining ground with the less traditionally observant, as enrollment in yearlong pluralistic, Reform and Conservative movement programs is on the rise.
“For many of our students, this is their only opportunity to take a large chunk of time to explore a deeper part of themselves,” said Rabbi Ramie Arian, the national director of Young Judaea, a pluralistic organization affiliated with Hadassah that runs a 10-month post-high school program called Year Course.Increasingly, he said, non-Orthodox teens and their parents “see value in stepping off the academic rat race and exploring one’s identity as a Jew and as a Zionist.
”That might explain why during the past five years, Young Judaea has seen the number of non-Orthodox students participating in its post-high school program grow more than 40 percent to 240 students, according to Rabbi Arian. Program enrollment is under way for the 2005-06 season, and the organization expects the number of non-Orthodox students to top 315.The 24-year-old Nativ program has also seen a steady rise in its student body, which now stands at 62. This year the Reform movement launched Carmel, a yearlong Israel program. Students take classes at the University of Haifa and at the Lokey International Academy of Jewish Studies, a Reform institution.
“I was excited to see the Reform movement starting a program like this and felt like it was about time it did,” said 18-year-old Rachel Marder, one of the eight students who enrolled in the program during its inaugural year.“Most of my friends went right on to college,” said the Palo Alto, Calif., native, who attended a private secular school. “I was nervous about doing something different from them, but I knew I wanted to be in Israel, so I felt good about my decision.”
Rabbi Ron Symons, who helped develop the Carmel program, said he hoped it would “create a new generation of Reform Zionists.”“When kids come back, they’ll have three or four years to influence their campuses,” he said. “At a time when more and more university campuses are expressing anti-Israel sentiments, we want our [graduates] to not only be lovers of Israel but defenders of Israel,” Rabbi Symons said.But parental attitudes must shift if the post-high school year in Israel is going to become a non-Orthodox Jewish community norm, not a small but growing exception.Some parents oppose the prospect of their children taking part in the programs, as much because it could delay college graduation as the security risks that living in Israel entails, said Feldman, whose parents have been supportive of her decision.
“I know people whose parents said, ‘Absolutely not,’ and that’s why they’re not here,” she said.Zachary Roseman, 17, of West Hempstead, L.I., a senior at the Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island, is deferring his admission to the University of Pennsylvania to take part in Nativ. He will study at Hebrew University and work on a kibbutz in the Negev next fall.
“There are still some people who wonder why I want to delay college, or why I would want to go somewhere that may be dangerous,” he said. “For me it’s not about delaying. It’s about enriching my college experience and giving myself an extra year for me to grow as a person.”Roseman said he was heartened by the growing interest in pre-college Israel programs, referring to the record number of his fellow Solomon Schechter High School seniors — 12 from a graduating class of 58 — planning to spend next year in Israel.
Still, he said, non-Orthodox Jews can learn from their more traditionally observant counterparts when it comes to encouraging youth to participate in yearlong Israel programs.“The Orthodox community does a great job of bringing up its kids to love Israel and telling them Israel is a place where you should want to be,” he said. “The Conservative and Reform movements need to focus … on how we can support Israel better.”
Among Orthodox Jews, post-high school Israel study has for about a generation been de rigueur. At Yeshiva University, Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, 80 percent of the students spend their freshman year in Israel at one of the school’s 42 affiliated yeshiva programs. While the university grants a maximum of two semesters of credit for study abroad, about half of YU freshman studying in Israel remain for a second year, said John Fisher, the school’s director of enrollment management.
University President Richard Joel attributed the prevalence of Modern Orthodox students studying in Israeli yeshivas to the strong ties between the community and religious Zionism, and to the centrality of Torah study in the lives of Modern Orthodox Jews.Joel also noted that about 30 years ago, the post-high school yeshiva year supplanted the junior year in Israel as the Modern Orthodox benchmark.“
YU got behind the notion that it is a more opportune time to study between high school and college,” he said. “A large number of our students attend day schools and yeshivas, and the thought was that what they learned there could be fortified by an intensive year of study.”Said Young Judaea’s Rabbi Arian, “The Orthodox community is very good at developing community norms. They’ve created the norm of [Jewish] day schools and a norm of a gap year studying in Israel. They’re the envy of everyone else in the Jewish community. The rest of us are starting to catch up now.”While looking to emulate the Orthodox world when it comes to the percentage of its teens engaging in post-high school Israel programs, more liberal streams of Judaism are also looking to provide students with alternatives to the Jerusalem yeshivas that are popular in frum circles.
That’s because many participants in the non-Orthodox programs aren’t looking to devote themselves exclusively to the study of Torah and Talmud. They are instead looking to deepen their knowledge of modern Israel, Zionism and Hebrew language and literature.There is also an experiential component in many of the programs. On Carmel, students take frequent guided weekend trips and volunteer in and around Haifa. Nativ and Young Judaea offer students an opportunity, in addition to taking classes, to spend time on kibbutzim or volunteering with Israeli nonprofit organizations.Ari Roskies of New York, a Conservative Jew who graduated in May from Ramaz High School in Manhattan, decided to attend Nativ instead of the Modern Orthodox yeshivas where many of his high school classmates are studying.
“I wanted to go out and see the country, and to give something back,” said Roskies, who will attend the University of Chicago next fall. “I didn’t want a closed, narrow experience. If you’re in Israel, you should experience Israel, not just yeshiva culture that exists wherever there are Orthodox Jews.”“College in America is a big deal,” he continued. “To put that off for a year, you have to really want to do it. I don’t think most Conservative and Reform kids care enough about Zionism to do that. But the numbers are rising, so maybe things are changing.”