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Popularity of Israel programs spikes as Covid affects universities

Popularity of Israel programs spikes as Covid affects universities

Students switch gears to avoid missing the ‘full’ college experience

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Noa Niv of Livingston, center, participated in a recent Aardvark Israel program. Photo courtesy Aardvark Israel
Noa Niv of Livingston, center, participated in a recent Aardvark Israel program. Photo courtesy Aardvark Israel

Jonah Heimowitz had college plans until the pandemic upended them. A motivated high school student at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, he studied hard, aced his ACT exam, and was looking forward to starting the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business this fall.

Now he’s tossing his syllabi and attending Young Judaea’s Year Course in Israel, a nine-month program in which high school graduates take classes, volunteer, and tour the country.

“I had time to sit and think a lot” during the pandemic, he told NJJN by phone from his home in South Orange. “It made me realize that maybe I didn’t need my life to be in such a rush.”

Similar programs in Israel are seeing an unprecedented spike in applications this year. The highest demand so far has been for gap year and internship programs, according to Ofer Gutman, acting CEO of Masa Israel Journey, who pointed out that it’s no coincidence that this is happening “as job markets tighten and universities remain closed for in-person classes around the world.”

Jonah Heimowitz is deferring University of Michigan to attend Young Judaea’s Year Course. Photo Courtesy Jonah Heimowitz

Case in point, this week Rutgers and Princeton universities joined other institutions of higher learning in announcing their fall semester plans, which include a continuation of remote learning and reduced student capacity on campus. Like so many of Jonah’s peers, a gap year in Israel is more desirable than attending college stripped of in-person classes and a vibrant dormitory and social scene. In fact, for the upcoming year there is a 140 percent increase in demand for long-term programs in Israel, with a total of 7,800 registrants, according to Masa Israel, the central address for Israel programs.

Programs of all sizes, from Year Course to Yahel Social Change Fellowship, a service and learning program for older students and recent graduates, are seeing a significant jump in applications since the outbreak of Covid-19. 

“With everything going on, I couldn’t see myself in a college environment,” said Hannah Brownstein, who lives in South Orange and is a graduate of Columbia High School in Maplewood. She told NJJN that instead of attending the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business this year, she plans to join her friend Jonah in Year Course.

Hannah said she made the decision about a month ago.

“Even if we’re on campus, we won’t get the full experience,” she said, citing the Big 10 football season as one example of an experience unlikely to happen this fall. The University of Michigan has announced a blend of in-person and remote learning for the fall, and the residence halls will be open with public health guidelines in place.

Brownstein, who speaks Hebrew fluently and has family in Israel, knew her parents wouldn’t consider any other gap year program. Pointing to its size and history, she said, “It’s the one that will most likely continue running if everything goes south.”

In Hannah’s view, Israel is doing better in containing the virus than the U.S. and she’s undaunted by the possibility of facing a mandatory quarantine when she arrives in the country.

“This was not the plan. I won’t lie,” she said. “But now that I’ve made the decision, I’m super excited.”

Young Judaea’s Year Course has seen a 120 percent increase in registration over last year, according to Dafna Laskin, director of engagement. Since March, the program has picked up 70 new participants — like Hannah and Jonah — who switched tracks and opted to defer their college enrollments. By comparison, the period between March and July usually brings in about 10-15 new applicants.

“It’s a transformative number for us,” Laskin said of the outsized number of applications. Twenty-seven of the recent applicants — around 38 percent — hail from New Jersey.

“With everything going on, I couldn’t see myself in a college environment,” said Hannah Brownstein of South Orange. Photo Courtesy Hannah Brownstein

Yahel, a nine-month-long program for 20 individuals between 22-28, places students in Lod and Rishon Lezion, where they volunteer for NGOs, schools, or grassroots organizations. In an average year, by the end of June, the 10-year-old program has about 35 applicants with 16 confirmed participants, and as more applications trickle in, administrators take the summer to fill the program. This year they had received 45 applications by the end of June, according to executive director Dana Talmi; by the start of July the program was full, with eight people on the waiting list. Now they have stopped accepting new applications, and Yahel is trying to secure more funding to grow the program and enable a total of 30-35 people to participate.

Some of the applicants are graduate students who don’t want to spend “tens of thousands of dollars to sit in front of a computer” next year, Talmi said. Others moved to a city for a job that got cancelled and are opting instead for the time in Israel. Fellows come from around the world, including the U.S., United Kingdom, Argentina, Holland, and Estonia. 

Aardvark Israel, a gap-year program that started in 2010, has also seen a significant increase in interest. Last year, Aardvark started the fall semester with about 90-100 students, according to Aardvark education director Moshe Levi (a former shaliach to Jewish Federation of Greater
MetroWest NJ).

“We are looking at close to 130 to 140 this semester,” he said.

Despite the record number of applications, due to budget constraints Masa Israel is unable to offer grants or scholarships to students under 22 who are studying in yeshivas or seminaries. Normally, Masa provides $500 in universal grants for eligible 18-20-year-olds on long-term programs, plus another $1,500 in needs-based grants. For eligible 21-30-year olds, it used to provide a universal grant of $3,000 plus $1,500 in needs-based grants. The dollar amounts can vary depending on the length of the program.

A U.S.-based gap-year program is also experiencing an uptick in applicants. Tivnu: Building Justice, a Portland, Ore.-based program that explores connections between social justice and Judaism, started in 2013. It usually has eight-10 participants but will likely expand to 20-25 this year due to the large number of applicants, including one from New Jersey, according to executive director Steve Eisenbach-Budner.

While Israel is not immune to shutdowns related to the pandemic, gap-year programs learned to be resilient from their experiences this winter and spring, and those that remained open scrambled to adjust schedules and expectations.

“I won’t tell you that it was easy, because it was not,” said Talmi of Yahel. “But we’ve handled this now and we’ve learned a lot.”

She added, “We’ve seen that there is a lot that can be done and that our fellows can do, even in complete lockdown … even if [the fellows] can’t go out to the community center, or they can’t go out to school.”

And Jonah appears unconcerned about the possibility that Year Course programming comes to a halt. “God forbid, I have to stay on the beach in Tel Aviv for the whole year,” he said. 

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