The other side of the gap year
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The other side of the gap year

Yeshiva program teaches local freshmen how to integrate Israel and America

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Recharge program participants at Eretz Hatzvi over winter break. All are from Teaneck. From left, David Kamins, Matthew Federbush, Rabbi Mordy Friedman, Rabbi Yehuda Susman, A.J. Varon, and Don Greenberg. Adam Ross

Many modern Orthodox high school graduates defer freshman year in college in favor of a so-called gap year of religious study in Israel. Returning to North America with a renewed commitment to Judaism, nevertheless often they find that the college classroom and dormitory present challenges to their beliefs, practices, and morals.

The problem was documented 10 years ago in “A Parent’s Guide to Orthodox Assimilation on University Campuses,” co-written by Bergenfield native Gil Perl, then a Harvard graduate student. Three years before the report was published, Englewood residents Heshe and Harriet Seif founded the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus. Administered by the Orthodox Union in partnership with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, JLIC today has young Orthodox rabbinic couples providing programming and guidance at 16 North American campuses.

Rabbi Mordy Friedman, raised in Teaneck, was the JLIC rabbi at the University of Pennsylvania from 2006 through 2010. Now teaching at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi in Jerusalem, Rabbi Friedman heads a unique curriculum devised to better prepare gap-year students to confront successfully the spiritual dilemmas they likely will face as college freshmen.

“Some yeshivas approach the question of university like a bathroom, telling their students, ‘You have to go there, but its stinks, so get out as soon as you can.’ Our approach is the opposite,” Rabbi Friedman said. “We teach our students that they can grow in their Judaism through being articulate spokesmen for Orthodoxy and the leadership and initiative they take on campus.”

Eretz Hatzvi’s rosh yeshiva, Teaneck native Rabbi Yehuda Susman, says that while some gap-year schools urge students to attend a Jewish university such as Yeshiva or Touro – or none at all – his institution accepts that most of the student body will choose secular universities.

“Although traditionally the message to yeshiva students has been to exclusively attend religious campuses like Yeshiva University, 60 to 70 percent of students are not listening to that,” Rabbi Susman said. “We say, ‘You’re making this choice – what are the issues you are likely to face? Let’s talk about them and prepare you for them.'”

Eretz HaTzvi students get training in Israel advocacy, public speaking, and countering biblical criticism. They receive advice on how to fit Torah study into their schedules, and what to do about Friday night parties and classes held on religious holidays. They role-play how to handle social situations and how to relate respectfully to Reform and Conservative peers. On request, Rabbi Friedman presents guidance to students at other Israel programs, too.

“I’m not giving rules, but encouraging them to consider values and realize possible consequences,” Rabbi Friedman said. “The more they practice, the more successfully they can think through real situations.”

He has firsthand experience of the problem; Rabbi Friedman is a product of the Yeshiva of North Jersey, the Torah Academy of Bergen County, and Yeshiva University. He completed two gap years at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel before beginning college and graduate school.

“A strong emphasis is also placed on becoming articulate spokesmen for Orthodoxy,” he said. “We try to give them the attitude that they are on a mission, not just to grow as a person but as a Jew.”

Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi’s associate director, Todd Berman, said that it is no coincidence that graduates have taken leadership roles on campuses including MIT, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, and Brandeis.

Teaneck native Zeke Pariser, now 24, was elected president of Rutgers University’s Orthodox community in his junior year and became president of Rutgers Hillel in his senior year. Former Columbia Hillel President Daniel Bonner, current Penn Hillel president Alon Krifcher, and current NYU Hillel president Zach Schwarzbaum all went to Eretz Hatzvi.

The piece de resistance of the school’s approach is Recharge, which provides up to $1,000 toward airfare for every student who returns for two weeks of study during university breaks. Funds must be raised separately for the project; about 25 to 30 students take up the offer each year.

“The very first educational decision we made when creating the yeshiva was that there would be a Recharge program,” Rabbi Susman said. “It’s a crucial part of who we are.”

Many Recharge participants come with notebooks full of questions for their former teachers – everything from the logistics of keeping kosher in a dorm kitchen to the proper response when encountering a professor’s religious hostility.

“The program literally recharges them, but it also recharges us, because hearing about the situations they face gives us a current student perspective on what’s to come,” Rabbi Friedman said.

David Kamins of Teaneck, a Muhlenberg College sophomore now on Recharge, said: “The name speaks for itself. It’s reinforcing what I learned and gives me ideas of what I can do when I’m back at college in terms of setting times to learn and making more practical goals for how much [Torah] studying I can accomplish.”

Mr. Berman recalled one student who came on Recharge during his sophomore year at McGill University. “He wrote us afterward that since McGill doesn’t have a large Orthodox population, he felt he was drifting off religiously, and our program got him excited about modern Orthodox Judaism again,” he said.

Hoping to connect with the rest of its recent alumni, Eretz Hatzvi sends teachers to run Shabbat programs for them at campuses including Washington University, Columbia, NYU, Maryland, Cornell, Brandeis, Michigan, Penn, Rutgers, Northwestern, Princeton, McGill, and others.

“The goal of the yeshiva is to relate to students, no matter where they’re going afterward,” Mr. Berman said.

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