Spending a gap year after high school at a yeshiva or seminary in Israel has become a tradition for many Jews around the world in the past few decades, but as the coronavirus outbreak continues to affect both Israel and global Jewish communities the nature of that tradition may be about to change drastically.
When the coronavirus outbreak began to intensify and international travel became risky, if even possible, many gap year programs made the decision to send their students home. Those that did stay open were no longer able to hold classes in person and switched to Zoom classes instead, in order to follow Health Ministry guidelines. As the Israeli government begins to loosen social distancing regulations, gap year programs are now faced with the question: What next?
Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah, located in Modi’in, made the decision not to shut down, although some students made the choice to return home in any case, and have been conducting classes over Zoom since the lockdown began. Students have been provided with masks and gloves and updated constantly about regulations and guidelines to stay safe during the outbreak.
“Our hope is that in the next week or so, we’re able to go back in a limited capacity to the yeshiva,” said Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Dvir Ginsberg to The Jerusalem Post. The yeshiva’s plan would be to restart at least part of the classes in the yeshiva building after Yom Ha’atzma’ut, but may involve having some classes back in the yeshiva’s apartments in smaller groups, depending on Health Ministry guidelines. “Our hope is that by the end of May, we’ll be able to conduct some trips and obviously spend [the holiday of] Shavuot together in yeshiva.”
“It’s really about getting back to a sense of normalcy, but at the same time understanding that there’s the new normal now and that the regulations demand that we adjust our behavior,” explained Ginsberg, adding that students would need to follow regulations or the yeshiva would return to conducting all classes on Zoom.
The yeshiva is preparing for the summer as well, as international travel may still be difficult and some students have expressed interest in staying over the summer. Migdal HaTorah rents apartments for the entire year, so students will “definitely” be able to stay, according to Ginsberg. “If enough stay, we’re considering a possible summer program to help with the guys to continue their learning through the summer,” said Ginsberg, adding that the program being considered could also include some more trips.
Gap year programs are also preparing for multiple scenarios that could arise in the next school year, while still ensuring that they’re able to operate.
“The number one priority for us is the health and wellbeing of every student,” stressed Ginsberg. “That being the case, we also recognize how important the year in Israel is.” The yeshiva is preparing for multiple scenarios that could arise in the next year, including possible quarantining facilities, social distancing guidelines and orientations concerning hygiene, masks, etc. The schedule may even need to be changed depending on the situation. “There’s so many unknowns.”
“We just want to make sure that students know that the opportunity to join us at Migdal is there for the taking and we feel that once we finalize our plans they’ll really reflect a certain level of diligence and attention to detail that should assist a lot of students who might be on the fence about coming,” explained Ginsberg.
Daniel Ganopolsky, 19, a student at Migdal HaTorah from Brooklyn, NY, decided to stay in Israel because he felt that he wouldn’t “have too many opportunities like this” and that the situation would probably return to normal quicker here than in New York. A lot of Ganolpolsky’s friends in Israel did decide to go back home, but most of his friends at the yeshiva decided to stay, which was a big factor in his decision to stay.
While he would have preferred to be spending his year in Israel not in lockdown, Ganopolsky told the Post that the situation still hasn’t been “too negative” and that it helped him appreciate certain things, such as when a neighbor brought over food during the lockdown. “It’s a really cool part of the culture and community here which you’re not really going to get anywhere else,” said Ganopolsky. The lockdown also gave him time to learn, read and catch up on sleep.
Ganopolsky is planning on coming back to the yeshiva for a second year and will “hopefully be able to make up for whatever time I missed during the lockdown.” However, he is planning on returning to New York during the summer if possible, as his parents want him to come home before returning for a second year.
The gap year student explained that while his parents would have liked him to be at home, they did understand that he would probably be safer in Israel than in New York. While many yeshivas closed, “Migdal was open, we had classes over Zoom, they supplied us food, they extended our learning schedule an extra week and started early so there was less Bein HaZmanim (holiday break) which sounds like a bad thing, but it’s really a good thing since we’re on lockdown and can’t really do anything,” explained Ganopolsky.
The economic impacts caused by the pandemic have affected gap year programs as well. Both the US and Israeli governments are offering aid that gap year programs are eligible to receive. Parents of current students have also begun helping out.
Migdal is planning on doing a fundraiser in June and recognizes that tuition may be challenging for parents this year. While usually tuition arrangements are already in place by now, the coronavirus outbreak has delayed matters as the yeshiva tries to “give parents space.” When the US reopens its economy, the yeshiva will begin to discuss tuition arrangements again and is “confident” that donors will recognize the importance of supporting the educational institution.