By Yakira Cohen
The coronavirus pandemic may have upturned Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School graduate Avishye Moskowitz’s senior year, but he’s not letting it thwart his plans to take a gap year in Israel before college.
“Even with the risk of the pandemic, I think it’s very worth it to have that experience,” he said. “It’s something that’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of opportunity.”
Next year, Moskowitz plans to attend Orayta, a yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem that provides comprehensive Torah learning, exposure to the land of Israel, and connections with rabbis and alumni, according to its website.
“I’ve grown up always having a passion for Israel and my Judaism, and it just made sense for me to take a year off and go and experience Israel and learn Torah, and also have some time to reflect on myself,” he said.
But Moskowitz is not alone. Hundreds of other high school graduates still intend to follow through on their planned gap years, especially as many colleges remain uncertain about if and how they will reopen in the fall. This includes Aleesa Elbaum, another member of Beth Tfliloh’s class of 2020.
“There hasn’t really been much change in my thinking as to whether I’m going or not,” she said.
Elbaum added that she isn’t too concerned about safety because the learning program she plans to attend, Sha’alvim for Women, has been “very on top of it.”
“They make sure their students are in the know as they are and not that there’s much to know, what they can tell us, they do,” she said.
When the coronavirus broke out in Israel this past March, gap year programs, which typically host large groups of young adults in a contained environment abroad, were suddenly in a difficult position for stay-at-home and social distance practices. Many programs struggled to safely continue programming and had to shut down, sending students back overseas to quarantine with their families.
“It was definitely a game changer,” said Nomi Berman, a top administrator at the women’s Midreshet Lindenbaum program of Ohr Torah Stone.
Although Lindenbaum never officially closed, and although many non-overseas students from Lindenbaum’s other programs stayed as the virus took hold, only a handful of overseas students stayed in Israel to finish their gap years, according to Berman.
After most left, Berman had to “morph, really overnight” the current learning schedule to accommodate students in five different time zones. At first she said she worried about maintaining the program’s sense of community that comes from learning in person, but was ultimately impressed by how easily and quickly the transition happened.
“It was actually incredible,” she said. “Everyone was on board, we were learning a lot, but there was also a really strong sense of community.”
Lindenbaum is revamping its program for next year to meet Israel’s safety restrictions, which includes keeping the first two weeks virtual while overseas students are forced to quarantine upon landing in the country, partitioning off the dining room and beit midrash, creating groups of students based on classes, and preparing for potential emergency quarantines.
“We are forging ahead with plans, and in some ways, we are planning for the year to be like every other year. But also different in every possible way,” said Berman.
After this past school year’s students missed out on part of their Israel experiences, and as the grim possibility of online college begins to unfold, Lindenbaum has even seen a huge increase in interest for their Shana Bet program for returning students who want to take another gap year, according to Berman.
“We’re not a huge university campus. … We’re a relatively small and contained program, and so we’re able to adapt pretty quickly and easily,” she said. “People are really looking toward midrasha hopefully.”
Elbaum and Moskowitz are certainly looking ahead. Both said that although they have friends who opted to change their gap year plans due to coronavirus concerns, they are confident in their programs’ respective abilities to maintain their safety.
“I do believe Israel has handled this pretty well, so I think Israel is one of the safest places,” said Moskwowitz.
Mostly, high school graduates who have been looking forward to their gap year experiences for years are excited to end their extended stays at home and fulfill their aspirations in the holy land.
“Anyone who’s taking a gap year, regardless of corona, or any scare that they might have, should just remember that they’re going to learn for the sake of learning, and just enjoy every minute of it, because that doesn’t happen too often,” said Elbaum.