This month, 106 high school graduates including three from this area left for Israel to participate in the NATIV College/Leadership Program.
From left, Aaron Eidman, Irene Shulman, and Josh Bickel help build the sukkat at Beit NATIV.
Josh Bickel of Fair Lawn, and Aaron Eidman and Irene Shulman, both of Englewood, will spend the next nine months studying, touring, volunteering, and learning leadership techniques as part of this ‘7-year-old program, run by United Synagogue Youth.
"This is the largest NATIV group in the program’s history," said Teaneck resident Jules Gutin, director of USY, pointing out that this year’s group comes from ‘5 states and two Canadian provinces. "In fact," he said, "since September ‘003, NATIV enrollment has more than doubled."
According to Nahum Binder, USY’s central shaliach and assistant director of the NATIV program, from September through mid-January, participants have three options. They may study at the Rothberg School for Overseas Studies of the Hebrew University; learn at the United Synagogue’s Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem; or take an intensive ulpan, run by Ulpan Milah, a privately run center that works mainly with new immigrants. After winter break, students may either live and volunteer on a kibbutz or serve as volunteers in an Israeli community.
This year, 11 teens will participate in the ulpan, 87 will study at Hebrew University, and eight will attend the Conservative Yeshiva, said Binder. For the second half of the program, 33 will work on a kibbutz either Kibbutz Sa’ad, which has housed the group for many years, or Kibbutz Ein Tzorim, where NATIV students went for the first time last year while 73 will do community service, 36 in Beersheva and 37 in Yerucham.
In Beersheva, some NATIVers will work in the school system, while others will volunteer with Magen David Adom or work in soup kitchens. At least one student will work at the local zoo, said Binder, since "we try to find a job that will match a student’s particular interests," and one student expressed a desire to work with animals.
Service in Yerucham was added as an option last year. "The community loved having them there," said Binder, who noted that volunteers there will mainly teach English.
In June, NATIV alumnus Simeon Cohen delivered a Shabbat morning talk at his congregation, the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, describing his experience in Yerucham.
"I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Dimona once a week, a kindergarten once a week, and worked as an English teacher at the Yerucham high school twice a week," he said. "I also volunteered at a Russian community center at night, teaching young Russian immigrants English and then having them beat me in chess."
Said Cohen, "The experience of living in Yerucham is one I will certainly never have the opportunity to [do] again. It gave me an unparalleled sense of insight into contemporary Israeli culture and society. It is just you, the immigrants, the sand dune, and maybe a camel or two."
Gutin suggested that the increasing enrollment for NATIV, which has served about 1,000 teens over the past ‘7 years, may be a result of the higher visibility of post-high school "gap" programs in general, and, more specifically, the efforts of MASA, a collaborative effort of the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel, to promote long-term trips to Israel.
By setting and monitoring participating groups’ educational and organizational standards and providing financial, marketing, and educational assistance, MASA works to "create the conditions that will enable thousands of young adults from around the world to participate in long-term programs in Israel each year," according to its Website.
"The concept of gap-year programs [which take place between high school graduation and the first year of college] is gaining greater acceptance," said Gutin, "and it is not only a Jewish phenomenon. Some universities actually encourage it."
Gutin added that once NATIV began to grow "as fears during the earlier intifada years were overcome" the positive feedback from participants encouraged others to go as well. He noted that teens are most likely to hear of the program through their USY chapter or from friends who have already been on the program.
The USY director pointed out that in addition to providing students with several different ways to experience Israel, the program also offers intensive training in leadership skills. "Over 60 percent of USY’s summer program staff are NATIV graduates," he said.
In addition, "The kids come back with more knowledge about Israel than those who go for only a short visit," he said. "They can take large Israel advocacy roles on campus and many become active in Hillel, with many going back to Israel through that organization."
Gutin, who has sent four of his own children on the NATIV program, said he’s "really gotten an in-depth look at it. I’ve seen it from both an administrative and parental perspective," he said. "It’s one of the most exciting things we do."
For more information about NATIV, visit www.nativ.org , call ‘1’-533-7800, ext. ‘3’1, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.