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entries tagged with: Gap Year


A ‘gap year’ spent in service

“Nativers” Ilana Rosenzweig, Seffi Kogen, Shara Fishman, and Gabe Cohen are all from Bergen County.

“My name is Seffi Kogen and I am writing to you from Yerucham, my home for
the second half of my year on Nativ. Back in Fair Lawn, I read The Jewish Standard every weekend, but here, in Israel, I rely on my mom to let me know if there is anything interesting that I should look up online. Recently, she told me about a front-page article documenting the wild behavior that sometimes occurs on yeshiva gap-year programs. That article moved me to suggest that the Standard might want to let their readers know about Nativ: The College Leadership Program in Israel.... Right now, there are five Bergen County residents currently volunteering in the development town of Yerucham. We work in kindergartens, the soup kitchen, the graveyard, the community center, and volunteer with Magen David Adom. We live and work and enjoy ourselves down here in what Israelis lovingly call ‘the middle of nowhere,’ and we would love for more people to know about ... the impact Bergen County is having on advancing the modern Zionist dream.”

That letter, from the son of Linda Ripps and Avi Kogen, prompted a conversation with The Jewish Standard one recent morning after Kogen’s late shift on the Magen David Adom ambulance in Yerucham.

Kogen is among 80 participants in Nativ (“nah-TEEV”), a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in its 29th year. A graduate of Solomon Schechter High School in West Orange, he is joined by fellow Schechter alum Ilana Rosenzweig of Oradell; Frisch School graduate Gabe Cohen of Hillsdale; Pascack Valley High School graduate Shara Fishman of River Vale; and Eric Leiderman of Englewood, who attended the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan.

An active Conservative Jew who attends Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn and served on the United Synagogue Youth regional board for two years, Kogen sees Nativ as the perfect middle ground between a yeshiva program and a secular work/travel program. It offers religious or college studies in Jerusalem in the first semester, and optional Judaic courses during its second volunteering semester.

Participants from all across North America travel throughout Israel, experience a taste of military life and desert survival, take leadership seminars, and receive preparation for Israel advocacy on campus. “I hope they go home from Nativ with the ability to keep on asking questions and keep on caring,” said Nativ Director Yossi Garr. “Nativ grads often take a leadership role on college campuses and later on in Jewish communities.”

During their first semester, Kogen and Rosenzweig took for-credit courses in the overseas students program at Hebrew University. Kogen studied Hebrew, Talmud, medieval Jewish history, entrepreneurship in the Middle East, and Israel society, culture, and politics; Rosenzweig took courses in the Holocaust, modern Jewish history, and Israeli literature.

Although Nativ also offers a kibbutz track for the second semester, all five Bergen County participants chose to volunteer in Yerucham, a blue-collar town 30 miles south of Beersheba. Living in downtown apartments with other “Nativers” and counselors, each chose a volunteer job from a list provided by the community development organization in Yerucham, said Kogen. The majority work in local schools, teaching English or assisting preschoolers. Those who also want to volunteer as emergency medical technicians must complete a 60-hour Magen David Adom (the equivalent of the Red Cross) course in Jerusalem, as Kogen did.

Rosenzweig works at a kindergarten. “It’s great because I don’t know that much Hebrew and they don’t speak English,” she said. Every couple of weeks the youngsters learn words that start with a different letter of the aleph-bet, and Rosenzweig learns them, too — like “nadnedah” (swing) for the letter “nun.”

One of her students is among the five children of her host family in Yerucham. These families volunteer to host Nativ participants for Shabbat meals or during the week. “It’s nice to have a family you can go to when you need it,” said Rosenzweig, who shares an apartment with eight other girls.

Living in a community rather than in a dormitory gives “Nativers” an authentic Israeli experience, especially when it comes to shopping, cooking, and cleaning. They have to learn how to read labels in Hebrew, substitute for American ingredients, and figure out metric and Celsius equivalents for measurements and temperatures.

Kogen said he and his seven third-floor-walkup apartment mates have mastered the Israeli method of cleaning tile floors with a squeegee instead of a mop. “We’re all learning how to play mom and dad,” he said. “These skills will come in handy when we have our own dorms and apartments.”

“It’s very different from what I’m used to,” added Rosenzweig, “but not in a bad way. I enjoy it.” A USY member through the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, she expects to attend Rutgers University to study elementary and special education.

Kogen used a Jewish National Fund connection to get a volunteer job writing a grant proposal for Youth of Yerucham, which aims to help newly discharged soldiers go to college. “Then, hopefully they will stay in Yerucham, and with their education they will bring jobs. It’s all part of trying to improve Yerucham as a whole,” said Kogen, who has met the town’s mayor.


N.J. students are among first to study at new Tiferet site

Five high school grads from Teaneck, one from Bergenfield, and one from Passaic are among students finishing an academic year in the new four-story facility of the Tiferet Center for Advanced Torah Studies for Women in suburban Jerusalem.

According to co-founder Rabbi Azriel Rosner, Tiferet was founded in 2005 with the unique goal of providing a complete community for gap-year students, where teachers all live in the neighborhood and maintain an open-home policy for the 60 young women from London, Toronto, Florida, Texas, Memphis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Boston, and the New York metropolitan area.

Given that nearly 70 different seminary programs are available for overseas women before college — 51 of them in Jerusalem — each one must find a niche that attracts a particular type of student. Tiferet is in Ramat Beit Shemesh, about 45 minutes from the capital city.

“Because we are a little out of the Jerusalem social scene, our emphasis is on girls who are coming to Israel to learn and grow and not necessarily be part of that scene,” said Rosner. “Everyone involved here lives within walking distance, and for students thousands of miles from home this adds an aspect of integration. Judaism is more than academic; it is also experiential, and our setup offers an experience of being part of an Israeli community.”

New Jersey students at Tiferet include, from left, Jessica Listhaus (Livingston), Alana Blumenthal (Teaneck), Lindsay Stadtmauer (West Orange), Ariel Mischel (Teaneck), Rachel Moradi (West Orange), Alyssa Zaretsky (Teaneck) and Michelle Fleksher (Passaic). Not shown are Leora Koenig (Bergenfield), Sara Weiss Kallus (Teaneck), Doren Glaser (Teaneck), and Tehilla Goder (Hillside).

Michelle Fleksher of Passaic, a 2009 graduate of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, said Tiferet interested her primarily for its self-contained atmosphere.

“I was looking for something smaller and warm, and here we’re in a community and can go to visit our teachers whenever we want,” she said. “Coming from a place of not liking to be away from home, that was the number 1 reason for me to choose Tiferet.”

Alyssa Zaretsky of Teaneck explained that each student is assigned an “adoptive” family, providing an insider view of Israeli life. The families “live in a very modest way but have everything they need, and they and their children are happy,” she said.

Fleksher noted that unlike many other seminaries, Tiferet offers college credit based on attendance, not exams or papers. “When it comes to testing I can get very stressed, and I didn’t want that,” she said. “You are here because you want to be. It’s very calming.” She hopes to study nursing in the United States after completing a second year at Tiferet.

The new structure, faced in Jerusalem stone, houses classrooms, a dining room, a study hall, and student dormitories. Its construction was financed by private donations and what is referred to as a “substantial” no-interest loan from the Caroline & Joseph S. Gruss Life Monument Fund. To keep up with enrollment demand, added Rosner, a second building is planned.

Students can choose from among classes in Bible; Jewish history, law, and philosophy; and Talmud, prayer, Zionism, and Israel advocacy. Like most other seminaries, Tiferet offers hikes and trips to national parks, landmarks, and archaeological sites. Also like other programs, it holds classes from morning till night and leaves one day a week free for community volunteering.

Bergenfield resident Leora Koenig, a Frisch School graduate, said her service involved playing with children in a local family so that the mother could devote extra time to their autistic sibling.

Alana Blumenthal of Teaneck came to visit the school when she was a senior at Bruriah High School in Elizabeth. “I saw that no one was bored,” she related. “I sat in on a class and was inspired right away. This was the way I wanted to learn and spend the year. And once you get accepted, you’re immediately part of this huge family that is Tiferet.”

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