Young Judaea opened its Year Course program on Thursday night with shofars blasting, welcoming young men and women to “the best year of your lives” at an opening ceremony in the capital.

Year Course, a nine-month program for Jewish high school graduates from America, Britain, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and France, is one of the largest gap year programs in Israel. This is its biggest year yet, with 320 participants.

“You are the elite of the Jewish people,” said Barbara Goldstein, the deputy director of Hadassah’s Israel office, in her remarks to the crowd. “You will go forth and be the ambassadors on every college campus, you will be the ambassadors of the Jewish people.”

Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, is Young Judaea’s parent organization.

The group will rotate between apartments in Jerusalem, Arad and Bat Yam, participating in community service and learning about the different facets of Israeli society.

In addition to university classes in Judaism, Zionism and Hebrew, they can choose from specialized tracks, focusing on medicine, cooking, business and sports.

For the first time, 16 specially trained participants will spend February volunteering at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village for orphans in Rwanda, which is modeled after Israeli youth villages.

“You come from different homes and backgrounds, and you each have a different voice,” former deputy minister of social and Diaspora affairs Rabbi Michael Melchior told the enthusiastic youngsters.

“What I want you to do this year is two things: listen to the voices... You’re coming to a new country, here there are a lot of different voices. Then make up your own mind, make up your own Torah, make up your own Zionism.

And go out and create you part... and we need your voice today in our beautiful, young, frustrating, challenging society.”

The 2010-2011 Year Course program coincides with the 100th anniversary of Hadassah.

“This year there has been a lot of initiative to contribute to Israeli society,” Dan Krakow, Young Judaea’s Israel director, told The Jerusalem Post.

Participants will join volunteer groups dedicated to refugees from Darfur and victims of environmental disasters or terrorism. Many of them did research on their groups before they arrived in Israel.

“You hear it in the conversations and the speeches, this emphasis on activism,” Krakow said. “We’re a Zionist movement, we’re about changing the world, strengthening Israel, strengthening the Jewish people, and dealing with challenges.”

The participants arrived on Tuesday, the day terrorists killed four people driving on Route 60.

“It was shocking,” said Harry Mandeles, a Year Course participant from Washington, DC.

“It was terrible to hear about, and we had a long discussion about it. It opening my eyes to the fact that the country always goes through hard times and we have to work for a better place.”

With parents watching a live broadcast of the opening ceremony, the group sang, danced and mugged for the camera, ecstatic to be beginning their year in Israel.

“I’m looking forward to gaining an understanding and appreciation of my people, an ancient nation and a new state,” said Gabi Remz, from Newton, Massachusetts. “And I’m also looking forward to finding a cute Israeli girl.”

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