Coronavirus crisis: Gap year programs try to adapt or send students home

Yeshivas and seminaries have been affected by the restrictive measures announced by the Israeli authorities against the spread of the coronavirus, some deciding to send the students back home.

Young people today are 'not looking for a year off, but a year on': Participants in the Masa leadership program (photo credit: AXEL ANGELS)
Young people today are 'not looking for a year off, but a year on': Participants in the Masa leadership program
(photo credit: AXEL ANGELS)
On Wednesday, New York resident Rena received an email from Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion, where her youngest son, Dovi, is enrolled for the year, asking for names of family members or friends in Israel where he would be able to self-quarantine if necessary.
The following day, however, the yeshiva reached out to parents again, this time asking them to arrange for their children to return home as soon as possible.
Initially, Rena could only find him a spot on a flight on March 23. Eventually, she managed to book him a ticket for this Wednesday. In the meantime, most of the 150 gap-year participants have left, while the yeshiva is still holding classes with fewer than 10 students in accordance with the authorities’ directives.
“The yeshiva has been great,” Rena told The Jerusalem Post. “Mevaseret was really in constant communication and working their hardest to help us, while also caring for the boys. They would love for them to be able to return, but the chances are slim.”
Every year, thousands of 18-year-olds from the United States and Jewish communities all over the world take a year off after high school to spend time in Israel.
Many programs are organized or supported by Masa Israel, an organization founded by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency to offer and enhance study, service and career development programs for young Jews between the ages of 18 and 30. According to Masa, there are currently 1,360 fellows on gap-year programs in Israel.
Within Orthodox communities, most teenagers choose to spend a year studying Torah in a yeshiva (for boys) or in a seminary (for girls).
Like other educational institutions, yeshivas and seminaries have been affected by the restrictive measures announced by the government to contain the spread of coronavirus in Israel, in most cases leaving no option but to send the students home. Other gap-year programs are trying to adapt to the new circumstances.
“Due to the coronavirus, we have had to adapt and cancel many parts of our program, but the core of them is continuing,” the religious-Zionist organization World Bnei Akiva told the Post.
The group runs eight Masa Israel Journey programs with about 230 participants. “We operate all over Israel, from Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv in the North to Dimona in the South,” it said.
While many participants from countries in the northern hemisphere have decided to return home, most of those from the southern hemisphere are staying, World Bnei Akiva said.
“We have a group on a kibbutz, and we are adding sports activities and online Zumba lessons to their program,” it said. “Our midrasha/yeshiva-based programs are all learning online. We are also working on creating a ‘virtual snif’ [chapter] – a hub of online activities for our participants from all over the world. We have about 10,000 of them, the large majority of whom are also confined with no schools.”
Also, 140 of the 170 youths enrolled in the Masa Israel Journey Program Aardvark based in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have decided to stay. According to the organizers, the program “brings together a diverse group of students from all over the world for meaningful, life-changing experiences that strengthen their Jewish identity, deepen their commitment to Israel and foster their personal growth.”
As part of the experience, participants intern and volunteer, as well as take part in leisure activities.
“As the situation develops, we have and will continue to make modifications to the program in strict compliance with all government directives, while also continuing to provide a positive, meaningful and safe experience for our students,” Aardvark told the Post.
“Some of our students’ internships have switched to a remote working setup,” the organization said. “And we are actively seeking out opportunities for our students to volunteer in ways which will help those impacted by the crisis, such as offering English tutoring lessons to school children online or in one-on-one meetings; assisting those in quarantine by picking up groceries, medications or other essential needs; walking their dogs; and sending notes of support. We invite organizations and individuals to reach out to us with additional volunteer options.
“We have every intention of continuing to operate the program provided we can safely do so. We are already working on host families for our students for the Passover seder and will also help those who wish to make seders in their apartments if they do not have family or friends to celebrate the holiday with.”
“Masa’s policy at the moment is first, follow the Prime Minister’s Office and Health Ministry instructions, in order to ensure the safety of our fellows,” Masa spokeswoman Oshrat Adler Eckhaus told the Post. “Secondly, we do not send our fellows back to their homes, and we actually work hard these days to find them safe, alternative activities. However, if an organizer decides to close its program for the year/semester and recommends that its fellows go back to their homes abroad – we allow them to do so.”
For those who choose or are compelled to return home, another challenge is presented by the limited number of flights. While some charter flights have been organized to bring home gap-year participants from the US, a one-way ticket can cost up to $1,900.
“It is a little scary to think that this has been my last time in yeshiva,” Benny Jacob told the Post. “I thought I had a few months left.”
Originally from Teaneck, New Jersey, Benny spent almost two years learning at Yeshiva High School Sha’alvim, south of Modi’in. Over the past two weeks, the coronavirus crisis has progressively become more and more present in their daily life, until on Sunday, the rabbis announced that the yeshiva would close, he said. There is a chance that students might be able to return for the summer, but it seems unlikely.
“Now, people can’t speak about anything other than the virus and how to make it home,” Benny said. “But many said that if they can, they will come back even if they need to be in quarantine.”