A few minutes before 7 each weekday morning, a minyan of slightly sleepy young men emerges from a gleaming new Tel Aviv high-rise and walks down the block to the chic Merkspace shared office building. It’s time to put on their tefillin for morning prayers.
The regular “Merkers” running 65 startup businesses in this building haven’t arrived for work yet. But some of them will join the young men for the afternoon service in their beit midrash — study hall — located smack in the middle of the co-working hub.
This novel scene in the heart of the startup nation is the realization of a dream of Yehuda Goldberg, an entrepreneurial 35-year-old father of three, who grew up in Passaic but has lived in Tel Aviv since he was 22.
Mr. Goldberg, a graduate of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, founded his first startup when he was 16. In Tel Aviv, he is part of a movement to strengthen the spiritual side of a city better known for its beaches, nightspots, and high-tech culture than for its synagogues and study halls.
His belief that American yeshiva high school graduates could achieve religious and professional growth in his adopted hometown led him to found a gap-year program called Torah Tech.
Each Torah Tech participant interns three days a week in a Tel Aviv business that best suits his interests. The learning part of the program aims to prove that daily Torah study and an exciting professional career need not be mutually exclusive.
Guest lecturers, many of them modern Orthodox American immigrants like Mr. Goldberg, are walking examples of this model. “For our students, it’s like looking at themselves in six years,” he said. “Some of these men from the community daven with us in the morning, bring their families to have Shabbos meals with us, and teach our students at night.
“We’re running a real-life simulation for motivated guys,” he adds. “They don’t have to be the most talented or the best learners. They just have to be willing to get up and go to work and learn. We give them tools to do that.”
Ten boys were accepted for this inaugural year; five of them are graduates of Bergen County yeshiva high schools. (Modern Orthodox gap-year programs are gender separated, and Mr. Goldberg says that a parallel program for girls is in the active planning stages. Similar programs tailored to Jewish public-school graduates of both sexes also are planned.)
The current cohort is a proof of concept, to borrow a term from the business world.
“This is a startup and we tell them they are ‘V1,’ version 1,” Mr. Goldberg said. “We gave them t-shirts and kippot that say ‘V1’ and they are our partners in this new venture. This is not a classic rebbe-student relationship — we treat it like a business. If something is wrong, we fix it with their input. We do one-on-one reviews with each guy every two weeks.”
The location and the professional development aspect make Torah Tech unique among dozens of gap-year programs in Israel, Mr. Goldberg said.
From November 11 to 19, Torah Tech’s educational director, Rabbi Shlomo Chayen, will be in the New Jersey-New York area to represent the program at “Israel night” events at schools including Frisch and Torah Academy. Word of mouth from current participants already has resulted in applications for next year’s maximum 18 spots.
Frisch graduate Ben Moskowitz, 18, of Teaneck, says he chose Torah Tech because he wanted his gap year to include preparation for a career in computer science and math. He and his family went to Israel during his senior year and met with Mr. Goldberg and Rabbi Chayen to ensure it would be a good fit.
Mr. Moskowitz is interning at the Floor, a global financial-technology innovation center based at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. “I’m currently researching quantum computing, a new method that will have many applications,” he said. “I’m looking at its potential impact in the financial sector, and will be making a presentation on the topic to bank representatives. Then I’ll be doing data analytics.”
He explains that “Rav Shlomo” — Rabbi Chayen — wants to instill the habit of consistency. Therefore, even on internship days everyone learns and discusses a chapter of the Bible and a chapter of the Mishnah, the 63-tractate compilation of Jewish law that forms the basis of the Talmud. Studied at this rate, the entire Mishnah can be completed in a year and a half. “It’s a system they can implement in university or work at the next stage of their lives,” Mr. Goldberg said.
On non-internship days the boys have a full schedule of classes as well as some group tours across Israel and trips to a Tel Aviv beach where men and women are admitted on separate days.
Living across from hip Sarona Market, the young men have a choice of kosher eateries in the vicinity but they receive three catered meals every day. At Merkspace, they also have access to kosher snacks and beverages and other services and conveniences available to all occupants, including fast Internet, a library, and a foosball table.
Mr. Goldberg said that some high school boys inquire about Torah Tech because of their curiosity about the party scene in Tel Aviv. That’s not the kind of student he will consider. “This is not for party guys,” he said. “The boys have a curfew and a dorm counselor. They have a long, busy day starting at 7 a.m. They can go out and have fun but not at bars, clubs, or anything that is not meant for a ‘ben Torah,’” — for an observant Jew.
The one original participant dismissed from the program did not violate those rules but rather failed to honor what Mr. Goldberg calls the “social responsibility” of joining his classmates to ensure a 10-man minyan for morning prayers, he added. His spot will be filled from the Torah Tech waiting list.
Mr. Goldberg and Rabbi Chayen say they seek students committed to the program’s values and schedule, not necessarily to the kind of intensive learning many other gap-year yeshivas emphasize.
Frisch graduate Zechariah Hahn, 18, of Cliffside Park, says he “didn’t want to do the traditional modern Orthodox yeshiva in Israel” and did not even consider a gap year in Israel until he heard about Torah Tech and decided it fit his goals.
He is interested in automotive engineering and just began interning at Guardian Optical Technologies, collecting data to train the company’s patent-pending in-vehicle sensing platform to adjust safety features automatically for each passenger. “Everyone got a great internship that we couldn’t have gotten except through Yehuda and Rav Shlomo’s connections,” he said. “This not only gives me experience in the field but looks great on my resume.”
He is the only person wearing a kippah in the office, he added, “but everyone is so relaxed and friendly it’s irrelevant.”
On the question of maintaining a religious life in Tel Aviv, especially as opposed to Jerusalem, Mr. Hahn said that “being in Tel Aviv is what you make of it. If you want to improve your Jewish experience in Tel Aviv you can; it’s just a matter of trying. Rav Shlomo is amazing and helps me get a more meaningful experience of being a Jew.”
On Saturday mornings, the students have an optional learning session and then attend services, either in their beit midrash at Merkspace or in neighborhood synagogues.
“We’re fortunate to be a part of reviving Judaism in Tel Aviv,” says Gavri Kepets, 18, a Frisch graduate from Teaneck. “We go to shuls in the area and make it very lively for people, with singing and dancing. It’s not Jerusalem, but because we’re strong in our balance of faith and business we make it work extremely well and we benefit from it.”
Mr. Kepets, who will attend Cooper Union next year, was looking for just such a balance when evaluating gap-year programs in Israel. “Thank God I found out about Torah Tech,” he said. “Everything it stands for is exactly what I want to accomplish this year and more,” he says.
He is doing coding at Autofleet, a seven-person startup that is building a platform to transform fleet managers to “vehicles as a service” providers in the coming autonomous car age. “I’m having an amazing time,” he said. “It’s very challenging but I’m learning a lot and I have a real project that is important to the company.
“Everyone is there to help me as I help them launch the company.”
Mr. Goldberg, who consults for startups and executes big-budget campaigns for such household brands as Microsoft, Verizon, and Toyota, keeps Torah Tech parents up to date daily via a WhatsApp group.
Not everyone is involved in high tech. One student is a budding photographer/videographer and has an internship with a professional videographer. Daniel Weber, 17, a Torah Academy of Bergen County graduate from Staten Island, is interning in a cancer immunotherapy lab at Tel Aviv Medical Center.
Mr. Weber plans to go to Johns Hopkins and become an oncologist or some other kind of physician. He says he would have accepted a business internship but was happy to be placed in his field. “Initially they had trouble finding a medical internship for someone without a graduate degree but they worked really hard at it and found me a connection at the hospital,” he said.
“Torah Tech has really created a great program for people like me who are not interested in learning all day. But more than the internship and the learning, it’s really about responsibility, teaching you to be an adult.”
For more information, email Mr. Goldberg at Yehuda@TorahTech.co or go to www.TorahTech.co.