Shalem gives local kids ‘amazing connection to Israel’
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Shalem gives local kids ‘amazing connection to Israel’

After Russell Heller graduated from the Frisch School in Paramus in 2004, he went to Israel for a year before college, just like the majority of his classmates. But instead of a traditional yeshiva, Heller chose Shalem, a track for modern Orthodox students in Hadassah’s Young Judaea Year Course in Israel program.

Today, the Teaneck native is director of recruitment for Shalem, which has a new director and a new direction. November is traditionally the time when yeshiva high school seniors apply to Israel programs, and that’s why Heller has been to 12 cities in the past few weeks.

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Dan Solomon on an archeological dig in Jerusalem’s City of David.

“Shalem gave me an amazing connection to Israel,” Heller told The Jewish Standard. “I’d come out of the day school system but it was through the ulpan [intensive Hebrew conversation classes] at Shalem that I really started to speak Hebrew and interact with Israelis. That focus on immersion was something I’ve taken with me the last five years and will take with me forever.”

Until now, Shalem’s structure was identical to that of the other Year Course tracks: one trimester stressing Judaic studies, one volunteering, and one touring. This year, Rabbi Yossela Ote changed the schedule to start each day with Torah study.

Ote joined Heller for meetings with teachers, parents, and students earlier this month at schools including Torah Academy of Bergen County and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, both in Teaneck; Frisch; SAR in Riverdale, N.Y.; and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston.

Aside from recruiting, the pair’s task is to project the program’s new image as a serious place of learning in addition to its better-known components.

“We’re changing to become a great yeshiva where students can grow spiritually and also give of themselves,” said Ote, who moved to Israel from Cleveland as a child. “Most of our students are not going to YU [Yeshiva University], so it’s important for them to know how to continue learning Torah in a mixed [gender] environment, how to live independently and set up their own kosher kitchen. Shalem prepares them for that.”

Heller said the travel part of the program also is planned to provide a real-life perspective. “We take them to see the tourist sites, but we also try to make them part of the country, more like citizens. They get out and interact every day with Israelis for a real hands-on experience.”

The same goes for all Year Course participants. Dan Solomon of River Vale, a student in the visual arts track of the program, literally gets his hands dirty as a volunteer at an archeological dig in Jerusalem’s City of David.

Sifting through debris and retrieving and washing artifacts that date from the Second Temple era (roughly 516 BCE to 70 C.E.), Solomon said he has become “much more connected to history.”

Among his finds was an ancient coin. “I couldn’t believe that I was holding a coin that dated from the time of the Maccabees,” said Solomon, who completed his freshman year at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

All 300 Year Course participants spend a third of the academic year in Bat Yam, an economically depressed city near Tel Aviv, a third in the Negev development town of Arad, and a third in Jerusalem. They volunteer in settings ranging from kindergartens and zoos to first-aid stations and nursing homes and take college-credit Judaic studies courses as well as ulpan and electives.

Ezra Schick and David Seiden, TABC graduates from Highland Park, are two of the 20 current Shalem students. Schick tutors Bat Yam grade-schoolers in English. Seiden sets up and serves in a soup kitchen that feeds 1,000 children every day.

Living among the populace rather than in a campus dormitory has exposed both young men to aspects of Israeli life they never encountered as tourists – like the sight of laundry hanging outside everyone’s apartments, said Seiden.

“I thought Israel was the utopian life of the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem,” said Schick. “Here, I see that it’s a normal country, where people have normal lives.”

“I chose Shalem because I wanted more of an experience in Israel than sitting in yeshiva and learning,” said Seiden. “I wanted more freedom. We have our own apartment and that gets you ready for college more.”

“The idea is to broaden their horizons and give them tools they’ll use later in life,” said Ote. “A lot of what they learn here they’ve never been exposed to in yeshiva high schools. We are taking them out of a textual format and into the thought behind the philosophy and the halacha.”

Schick said Shalem had acquired a reputation for attracting students who were not serious in their commitment to study or observance. “The way the program is perceived is unfair,” he said. “Everyone actually cares and is academically driven.”

He particularly enjoys his Talmud classes. “It’s approached from a very technical aspect as to structure and layout, not just opening up to a page and translating,” said the future Rutgers psychology major. “It’s more of an analytical perspective.”

Shalem students live in gender-segregated apartment houses in a different neighborhood from other Year Course participants. However, they share some classes with the larger group.

“We want them to cherish their religious identities, and to be in a religious environment, yet not to seclude themselves from the greater Jewish world,” said Ote, who earned his rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel after studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion and served in the Israel Defense Forces.

“Next year, Shalem students will study with kids in another track who are interested in [learning more about] Judaism. That will give them more of an environment that will suit their spiritual growth, and allow them to gain a lot more from their year in Israel than those in a yeshiva world.”

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