|Alan Simanowitz with a Matara student|
At the end of the summer, hundreds of recently graduated yeshiva high school students from North Jersey will board planes bound for Israel, where they will spend a “gap year” of intensive Jewish studies before starting college.
Many of them will thrive and mature. But many others will skip classes and flirt dangerously with newfound freedom far from home, wasting their potential and the money their parents spent on tuition for a program that probably wasn’t a good fit for them from the start.
“On any Thursday night in Jerusalem, you can go to the center of town and see hundreds of young people involved in chaotic behavior – drinking, drugs, and violence. And the overwhelming majority of these kids are from America or England on one-year programs,” said Dr. Simcha Chesner, director of two Jerusalem high schools for boys with severe educational and emotional challenges: Yeshivat Bnei Chayil for Israelis and Matara Therapeutic Boarding School for English-speakers.
It seemed a natural extension for Dr. Chesner and educational director Alan Simanowitz – who made aliyah from Teaneck in 2006 – to offer a gap-year alternative for young men interested in being in Israel but unlikely to succeed in typical programs, where students hit the books for up to nine hours a day.
They are now seeking 12 boys to form the first English-speaking class at Mechinat Eitan, an existing military prep school in the Jerusalem suburb of Ma’aleh Adumim. Mr. Simanowitz, the program’s educational consultant, said that the school will offer pre-army and pre-college tracks, each featuring customized experiential learning and volunteering opportunities along with physical and academic skills training.
“In New Jersey, I was very involved in working with high school students and parents on how to ease transitions, especially for kids who struggled in high school,” said Mr. Simanowitz, who was a private learning specialist and director of special services for Bergen County public schools.
“As educational director at Matara, I get a lot of phone calls from overseas parents about their 18- or 19-year-old sons, who have finished high school in America or England but never really quite fit in. They apply to a typical gap-year yeshiva in Israel because they’re following the herd, but they often wind up throwing their parents’ money away, not only in that year but also when they come back and start college.”
Mr. Simanowitz said that research strongly supports the value of a student attending a gap program or community college before beginning four-year college, and that it is particularly true for students who need to strengthen their skills in reading, writing, time management, and studying.
“Our academic track will provide students with these opportunities,” he said. “Through Matara, we are affiliated with an online university that will allow them to take college classes online with transferrable credit.”
Students will start their day at 6 a.m. with a two-hour workout directed by an Israeli special-forces veteran. Next, “non-coercive” morning prayers will precede a two-hour learning experience. The latter might involve, for example, “Bible with your feet” hikes in the Judean Desert in which the city is located. “There is a lot of biblical history right here,” Dr. Chesner said.
In the afternoon, the pre-college students will tackle study skills while the pre-military students will focus on training. Two days a week, everyone will do volunteer work.
Guidance counseling, small classes, and a high teacher-student ratio are planned, while tuition will be on par with regular gap-year programs. Boys choosing the pre-military track will receive assistance in joining the IDF’s overseas volunteer corps, Machal.
Dr. Chesner, the program’s psychological consultant, said that the approach is based on the concept of multiple intelligences. “People can find themselves and actualize themselves not just through book learning but through a wide range of activities,” he said. “The full framework will emphasize physical well-being and social activism along with spiritual guidance. There will be a learning piece, but it will minimize book learning.”
The school’s foreign student program director, Philadelphia native David Sterling, will be arriving in the United States toward the end of May and will be available to meet with prospective candidates and their families. For more information, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’ll be selective in taking the right kind of boy, someone not just wanting a vacation in Israel but committed to self-development with an alternative approach to learning,” he said.
Candidates will have to sign a contract not to use drugs, “but we’re willing to work with kids on the edges,” Dr. Chesner said.
“We are very cognizant of the fact that there is a demand for a female counterpart to this kind of program and we do hope to start one,” Mr. Simanowitz added. “After we find a few good young men for Mechinat Eitan, we can start looking for a few good young women willing to help us spearhead a similar school.”
Siting the program in an existing mechina provides the possibility of integration with Israeli peers. “A big part of mechina is living, eating and training together,” Mr. Simanowitz said. “We hope that our boys can join the 30 Israeli students for activities such as martial arts and perhaps for academic classes, depending on the population and their level of Hebrew.”
An intensive Hebrew-language ulpan will be mandatory for the military track and optional for the academic track.
Earlier, the Jewish Standard reported on another alternative gap-year program in formation, the Mechinat El-Ami Challenge Program, in Eilat for Orthodox 18- to 23-year-old men and women. For information on that program, go to elami.org.