A ‘gap year’ spent in service
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A ‘gap year’ spent in service

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“Nativers” Ilana Rosenzweig, Seffi Kogen, Shara Fishman, and Gabe Cohen are all from Bergen County.

“My name is Seffi Kogen and I am writing to you from Yerucham, my home for
the second half of my year on Nativ. Back in Fair Lawn, I read The Jewish Standard every weekend, but here, in Israel, I rely on my mom to let me know if there is anything interesting that I should look up online. Recently, she told me about a front-page article documenting the wild behavior that sometimes occurs on yeshiva gap-year programs. That article moved me to suggest that the Standard might want to let their readers know about Nativ: The College Leadership Program in Israel…. Right now, there are five Bergen County residents currently volunteering in the development town of Yerucham. We work in kindergartens, the soup kitchen, the graveyard, the community center, and volunteer with Magen David Adom. We live and work and enjoy ourselves down here in what Israelis lovingly call ‘the middle of nowhere,’ and we would love for more people to know about … the impact Bergen County is having on advancing the modern Zionist dream.”

That letter, from the son of Linda Ripps and Avi Kogen, prompted a conversation with The Jewish Standard one recent morning after Kogen’s late shift on the Magen David Adom ambulance in Yerucham.

Kogen is among 80 participants in Nativ (“nah-TEEV”), a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in its 29th year. A graduate of Solomon Schechter High School in West Orange, he is joined by fellow Schechter alum Ilana Rosenzweig of Oradell; Frisch School graduate Gabe Cohen of Hillsdale; Pascack Valley High School graduate Shara Fishman of River Vale; and Eric Leiderman of Englewood, who attended the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan.

An active Conservative Jew who attends Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn and served on the United Synagogue Youth regional board for two years, Kogen sees Nativ as the perfect middle ground between a yeshiva program and a secular work/travel program. It offers religious or college studies in Jerusalem in the first semester, and optional Judaic courses during its second volunteering semester.

Participants from all across North America travel throughout Israel, experience a taste of military life and desert survival, take leadership seminars, and receive preparation for Israel advocacy on campus. “I hope they go home from Nativ with the ability to keep on asking questions and keep on caring,” said Nativ Director Yossi Garr. “Nativ grads often take a leadership role on college campuses and later on in Jewish communities.”

During their first semester, Kogen and Rosenzweig took for-credit courses in the overseas students program at Hebrew University. Kogen studied Hebrew, Talmud, medieval Jewish history, entrepreneurship in the Middle East, and Israel society, culture, and politics; Rosenzweig took courses in the Holocaust, modern Jewish history, and Israeli literature.

Although Nativ also offers a kibbutz track for the second semester, all five Bergen County participants chose to volunteer in Yerucham, a blue-collar town 30 miles south of Beersheba. Living in downtown apartments with other “Nativers” and counselors, each chose a volunteer job from a list provided by the community development organization in Yerucham, said Kogen. The majority work in local schools, teaching English or assisting preschoolers. Those who also want to volunteer as emergency medical technicians must complete a 60-hour Magen David Adom (the equivalent of the Red Cross) course in Jerusalem, as Kogen did.

Rosenzweig works at a kindergarten. “It’s great because I don’t know that much Hebrew and they don’t speak English,” she said. Every couple of weeks the youngsters learn words that start with a different letter of the aleph-bet, and Rosenzweig learns them, too – like “nadnedah” (swing) for the letter “nun.”

One of her students is among the five children of her host family in Yerucham. These families volunteer to host Nativ participants for Shabbat meals or during the week. “It’s nice to have a family you can go to when you need it,” said Rosenzweig, who shares an apartment with eight other girls.

Living in a community rather than in a dormitory gives “Nativers” an authentic Israeli experience, especially when it comes to shopping, cooking, and cleaning. They have to learn how to read labels in Hebrew, substitute for American ingredients, and figure out metric and Celsius equivalents for measurements and temperatures.

Kogen said he and his seven third-floor-walkup apartment mates have mastered the Israeli method of cleaning tile floors with a squeegee instead of a mop. “We’re all learning how to play mom and dad,” he said. “These skills will come in handy when we have our own dorms and apartments.”

“It’s very different from what I’m used to,” added Rosenzweig, “but not in a bad way. I enjoy it.” A USY member through the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, she expects to attend Rutgers University to study elementary and special education.

Kogen used a Jewish National Fund connection to get a volunteer job writing a grant proposal for Youth of Yerucham, which aims to help newly discharged soldiers go to college. “Then, hopefully they will stay in Yerucham, and with their education they will bring jobs. It’s all part of trying to improve Yerucham as a whole,” said Kogen, who has met the town’s mayor.

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