Spend your gap year in … Eilat?

Spend your gap year in … Eilat?

Rabbi offers program heavy on adventure as well as text study

El-Ami’s Rabbi Moshe Gottesman stands on the beach in Eilat.

It’s no secret that despite the popularity of gap-year yeshiva programs in Israel, many Jewish 18-year-olds, newly graduated from high school, do not relish the idea of hours-long intensive Torah study six days a week. Seeking to fill the gap in the gap year, so to speak, several creative programs have sprung up in recent years to offer travel-and-study or volunteer-and-study alternatives.

The newest program in this category is unusual for its location. It is based in the southernmost Israeli city of Eilat, the beach resort better known for snorkeling than davening.

The El-Ami (“To the Nation”) Challenge Program is for Orthodox 18- to 23-year-olds seeking “a very different kind of year experience in Israel,” its founder, Rabbi Moshe Gottesman, said. Rabbi Gottesman was in Bergen County recently to spread the word about the nine-month program he hopes to launch next September. A summer option may be offered, depending on interest.

“Eilat is a city with the most extraordinary opportunities for adventure and personal growth, from mountain ranges and Red Sea coral to awesome desert-land,” Rabbi Gottesman said. “We wanted to build something that would challenge our students both physically and spiritually. We will be able to give our students the opportunity to hike in the mountains, swim with dolphins, learn to sail with the Israeli Navy, rappel down the red canyon, and navigate through ‘desert survival’ experiences.”

All participants will have the option of earning an international scuba-diving license and taking master kite-surfing classes.

“The emphasis will be on self-discovery, learning half a day about faith and God, and what it means to be a Jew,” Rabbi Gottesman said. “We’ll have trips to meet different kinds of people in Israel. And after nine months, if someone wants to go into the army we can be like a family for him.”

Rabbi Gottesman, who was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and raised in Kiryat Arba near Hebron, spent five years at Eilat’s hesder yeshiva, during which he served in the IDF as a combat medic. (Hesder is an arrangement that allows religious young men to combine Torah study with a shortened period of military service.)

After marrying and living in Eilat for two years, Rabbi Gottesman moved to the Jordan Valley to direct the boys’ division of Israel’s Ariel youth movement. Seven years later, he moved east to Petach Tikvah to run a high school program for seniors from disadvantaged backgrounds, “to strengthen their self-esteem and prepare them for the army and a meaningful life.”

When he started hearing about a growing number of American teens from Orthodox communities who don’t fit into the traditional programs offered in Israel, he felt his experiences could be helpful in formulating a solution.

“We discovered a niche of kids who grew up in religious families but don’t really have a place to come for their gap year,” he said. “They don’t want to learn in a yeshiva or midrasha” – a women’s seminary – “and they have religious questions.”

El-Ami grew out of Rabbi Gottesman’s discussions with the head of the Eilat hesder yeshiva. It may have some sort of informal partnership with the yeshiva, though the programs are not affiliated.

The program is modeled not on hesder but rather on the Israeli mechina, a prep school for teens who opt for a gap-year experience of study and physical training before their military service.

El-Ami will have separate men’s and women’s divisions. Their activities will be similar, and they may join for some mutual activities.

“The program focuses a lot on identity, connecting to the Jewish people, heritage, and values, but although it is an educational program the style is far more relaxed and informal than a traditional yeshiva program,” Rabbi Gottesman said. “I’m not looking to compete with existing programs. I’m looking for boys and girls who want to come to Israel but don’t see the right setting, or those who come and find they don’t fit in.”

While he was in Teaneck during November, he introduced the program to members of the Orthodox Union youth group NCSY as well as to students at Torah Academy of Bergen County, a boys’ high school. He also met with TABC’s Israel guidance counselors.

El-Ami will be housed in a high school building in Eilat, the sunny city to which he and his family have relocated. The students will live in a neighborhood where about 100 national-religious families (the Israeli equivalent of modern Orthodox) have moved in.

Many young religious Israeli women in National Service, an alternative to the army, also are stationed in Eilat to do community volunteering. Joint activities and programming are possible, Rabbi Gottesman said, adding that the mayor of Eilat has placed his full support behind the program.

Tuition will be $22,000, similar to other gap-year programs despite higher expenses resulting from the more frequent off-campus activities and trips. Rabbi Gottesman hopes to offset the difference through partnerships with nonprofit organizations, North American federations, and Masa Israel Journey, which provides scholarships for Israel program participants.

El-Ami’s website, still under construction, is rejew-il.org, and Rabbi Gottesman’s email address is moshegrm@gmail.com.

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