Israel Gap Year Goes Digital
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Israel Gap Year Goes Digital

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

The traditional Israel gap year taken by thousands of yeshiva high school graduates each year now has a new home — online.

CyberSem, a seminary program for women launched just over a month ago, is a way for Orthodox high school graduates to get all the perks of the seminary experience, without the price tag, according to founder Chavi Goldberg.

“Parents can’t always afford to send a girl to seminary,” said Goldberg, 61, a Lubavitch mother of over a dozen living in Toronto (she preferred not to specify the exact number). The going rate for a year at seminary is around $20,000 — and that’s the low end, said Goldberg. “For a family with several children, that’s a lot of money to dish out for a single child.”

The program — which enrolled its first class of 10 students at the end of October — offers a range of Jewish subject matter and aims to reach a broad female audience. Goldberg said classes can accommodate both those with little Jewish background and those who have been in day school their whole lives. Course offerings include Jewish philosophy, Jewish history and Bible.

For many Orthodox young women, the gap year spent in Israel has become a rite of passage. The year precedes college for many and marriage and children for others.

“There’s a lot of pressure on young women to finish high school and jump right into the ‘real world,’” said Goldberg. As a high school and kallah teacher — a female Jewish educator who instructs Orthodox women in the laws of marriage — she has witnessed this pressure firsthand. “Seminary gives girls a chance to step back and solidify their Jewish knowledge before jumping into work, advanced degrees, and, oftentimes, marriage. That opportunity should be available to everyone.”

The program follows a trend to make advanced Jewish education available online. Several different programs — including Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the online Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute and an online program run by Chabad-Lubavitch — offer the opportunity to receive rabbinical ordination online. But, according to Goldberg, nothing like this existed exclusively for women.

“Opportunities to advance your Jewish knowledge are offered frequently to men — there need to be opportunities for women as well,” she said.

Goldberg stressed that although some of the course material is prepared by men, all course instructors are women and no male students are permitted to enroll. “There is going to be no online male/female interactions on my program,” she said.

After her youngest child started day school, Goldberg went back to pursue an online master’s and doctorate in curriculum development and distance education. From the start, she had in mind to create a seminary option that could be accessed “from anywhere.”

“I’m not denying the necessity for regular seminary, by why should some women lose their chance to pursue advanced Jewish education because they can’t go away from home for a year?” she said.

Though she is Lubavitch, Goldberg stressed that she intends the seminary to reach women from all different backgrounds and denominations. Some of the students currently enrolled come from unaffiliated backgrounds, she said, and are seeking to solidify their Jewish education.

“This program is meant to go across party lines,” said Goldberg. “We don’t have to get bogged down in the narishkeit of who we are,” she said, using the Yiddish word for nonsense. “We’re all here to learn the same Torah.”

In the future, Goldberg hopes to gain accreditation so that young women can use her courses to receive a bachelor’s degree — similar to the bachelor’s in Talmudic Study, or B.T.L., that young Orthodox men can receive in yeshiva. She also hopes to expand her course offerings to include a master’s program in childhood education, so that “girls who want to teach preschool can earn a decent salary.”

“It’s for women to learn and grow and invest in their Jewish future,” said Goldberg. “That doesn’t only have to happen in Israel. It can happen anywhere.”

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