Rabbi Adi Isaacs crafted a semester-abroad-in-Israel program for Jewish college students based on a unique insight: Only in Israel does immersion in a different culture involve immersion in the rhythm of Jewish life.
“It’s impossible for this to be replicated anywhere else in the world. Thrive Study Abroad is about getting more students to study in Israel because it’s a place to experience what Israel means and what it means to be Jewish,” Rabbi Isaacs said.
Thrive is an independent, privately funded nonprofit organization to which participants pay tuition while doing a semester in Israel.
Students can choose to take classes for credit at Hebrew University in Jerusalem or at Tel Aviv University, living in the international student dorms on those campuses. Thrive arranges programming and trips geared to exploring the Jewishly infused culture of Israel.
On Purim, for instance, Thrive students don’t just learn about the holiday as they could elsewhere. They deliver Purim treats to army bases and experience how this one-day festival permeates Israeli society — celebrated not only by those who go to synagogue to hear the story of Esther, but also by costume-clad Israelis whooping it up at Purim parades and parties throughout the land.
The Israeli weekend of Friday and Saturday usually revolves around sharing a bountiful Shabbat meal — with or without the religious rituals of the day of rest — with family and friends.
“This is a part of Israeli culture you will remember the rest of your life,” Rabbi Isaacs said.
Katie De Brabanter from North Caldwell said that when she considered where to take her junior year abroad while studying environmental science at Tufts University, she knew she could go somewhere exotic to learn more about rain forests or marine biology.
However, she’d fallen in love with Israel during a sophomore year Birthright trip and spent two months the following summer interning in Tel Aviv through Onward Israel for Birthright alumni.
“I had the summer of my life, and my heart was still beating for Tel Aviv,” she said. “So even though people said I should explore someplace new, I thought, why not go back to a place I love and where there’s so much more to explore? I had predefined intentions about what I wanted to achieve; I’d done the beach and clubbing. I wanted my semester abroad to be about figuring out my connection to Judaism and the land of Israel. And that is what Thrive is all about.”
Ms. De Brabanter was raised in an interfaith home; her mother is Jewish and her Belgian father was raised Catholic. “I went to Hebrew school and we celebrated the Jewish holidays, but I wasn’t exploring that side of my identity as much until Birthright,” she said.
Although Rabbi Isaacs is a graduate of Yeshiva University and previously ran summer programs for the Orthodox Union’s NCSY youth movement and Shabbat experiences for Birthright groups, Thrive is not an Orthodox outreach program. Participants meet Israelis of different religions, ethnicities, and levels of observance.
“They don’t say ‘This is how you should feel connected or be religious.’ They give you the tools and experiences to find that connection on your own,” Ms. De Brabanter said.
When she arrived in January 2020, the first Thrive activity in which she participated was an Israeli cooking class.
“They exposed us to different activities and experiences,” she said. “The focus was to see the diversity of Israel. We did a day of Gadna mock military training, visited the Knesset, took trips to different cities, and experienced beautiful Shabbat weekends. Previously I had barely celebrated Shabbat and it felt really special.
“We got a deep view of Israeli life and it helped me imagine what my life would be like if I moved to Israel for real. The community Thrive offers is so genuine and authentic; it’s an amazing program for self-development.”
That semester was cut short by covid, and Ms. De Brabanter returned home in March. She introduced her family to Shabbat rituals, which they embraced. They even gave her Adeena Sussman’s bestselling cookbook, “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen.”
“I had my Belgian dad making challah with me,” Ms. De Brabanter said. “My family was so happy to see that I was so happy and found something that brought me peace in such a turbulent time. It really brought us a sense of togetherness when we were freaking out about what was happening in the world. It was about tradition and being connected, preserving faith and hope.”
Back at Tufts, she “made” her housemates celebrate Shabbat as well, she said, “and they loved it. It was time to spend together and reflect on the week.”
After Ms. De Brabanter graduated in December 2020, she signed up for a Destination Israel five-month internship through Masa Israel Journey. “I worked at a consulting firm doing sustainability advising and I intended to come back and work in New York after that. But toward the end of the program, I felt I was just starting to pick up Hebrew and being part of the culture. So I got an apartment in Tel Aviv.”
She is now employed by a cybersecurity company on a temporary work visa. “I learned from my internship that I wanted to take a different path professionally and I have been met with open arms by my company,” she said.
She has no close family in Israel and admitted it’s been hard not seeing her family for six months. Her sister is coming in March for Purim and her parents hope to visit in April or May.
However, she said, “I have my Thrive ‘family.’ It’s a network you can rely on and stay connected with for many years after you finish studying abroad. One of my close friends from Thrive is in a teaching fellows program and we went to meet the new Thrive cohort.”
Rabbi Isaacs explained that each cohort has a maximum of 22 students. Fifteen students signed up for the first Thrive Study Abroad program in the spring of 2014 at Hebrew University. Now there are 19 at Hebrew University and 22 at Tel Aviv University, which partnered with Thrive in 2019 and has proved so popular that Thrive is set to expand there.
“Tel Aviv is very exciting for students who may have never stepped foot in their campus Hillel and don’t want Jewish life to be part of their life on campus,” Rabbi Isaacs said. “They are so excited to experience the beach and nightlife of Tel Aviv, the vegan capital of the world.”
At both locations, Thrive provides a fulltime staffer near the university and offers a weekly dinner and discussion in addition to after-class activities. Sometimes the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv cohorts meet up for a joint trip or event.
“It’s not vacation,” Rabbi Isaacs said. “It’s four to five months of living somewhere else in the world and connecting with the culture and society. For people from unaffiliated backgrounds, it’s not an obvious decision to choose Israel over Europe, but you can fly to Europe easily from Israel for a weekend; you don’t need to live there for four months. We’re saying, ‘Come to Israel and it will be so much more meaningful than anywhere else.’”
He noted that many Thrive alumni return to visit Israel within a year or two, and some even choose to move to Israel. But all of them, “as soon as they get back, are automatically ambassadors for Israel. These students are standing up for Israel and becoming more Jewishly involved.”
That was the case for Dani Zeller of Englewood, a 2021 graduate of Cornell.
She decided to do a junior semester in Israel when a Cornell student a year ahead of her told her about his positive experience at Thrive.
“I wanted to have a meaningful experience, so I met online with Adi,” Ms. Zeller said. “He explained the program and it notched what I wanted: learning more about Judaism while exploring the country and meeting new people from different parts of the US and Israel.”
Ms. Zeller was raised in a Reform family. “I always cared about Jewish values and have a very special connection with my grandma, Harriet ‘Gigi’ Zeller. She instilled in me a desire to embrace Jewish values such as tzedakah. So I wanted to learn more spiritually and understand where Israel came from, its history and current events. I think Thrive was the best way for me to do that.”
Ms. Zeller said that Rabbi Isaacs and Thrive’s assistant director, Mo Knecht, “crafted the experience according to what we wanted to get out of it. In the span of a few weeks, I was opened to new ideas and stories.”
The day of Gadna training at an IDF base, for example, “gave me a newfound appreciation for how much people do to protect Israel so we can come and visit or live there. We visited different companies that alumni had connections to. We were encouraged to share our stories and opinions. I loved meeting people with a similar interest to learn about these things. One of the people I met on the program has become one of my closest friends. We plan to get involved in a Jewish organization in New York.”
Before returning home in March 2020, Ms. Zeller felt that she “wanted to become a little more religious. I spoke to Adi and Mo about how to do that, one step at a time, and one of those steps was lighting Shabbat candles with my grandma. I started doing that the weekend I got home from Israel. I also started making challah every Friday.”
Ms. Zeller is living in New York City, working for the Accenture consulting company.
“Adi and Mo reach out to check on me,” she said. “The Thrive family is always there and continuing the conversation. My main takeaways from Thrive were a new appreciation for Israel and the people who live there, and that there is so much value in making an effort to go and learn more about Judaism.”