“I definitely made the right choice,” said Kraus, who had deferred her start at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., to this fall. “One of the most important things I gained was independence. Being in Israel, you’re really on your own. I had to learn to do my own laundry. We shopped for food and took public transportation. I learned to cook and bake. I even had to go to the doctor by myself. “And I made so many friends -- friends who watch you grow as a person,” she said. “I now have places to stay all around the world.”
Kraus had traveled to Israel twice previously, the first time as an eighth-grader at Agnon, and again as a high school student through the Diller/Ambassadors of Unity student exchange program. “I fell in love with the people and the culture,” she said.
From September 2012 to June, Kraus lived in Israel through the Young Judaea Year Course, a gap-year program for recent high school graduates combining academic study, community living, volunteering and travel
. “Our section was international,” said Kraus, who heard about the program from friends. The group included 30 Americans, 20 students from Great Britain and Scotland, three Israelis doing a service year, and a student each from Sweden and Belgium. Like the other Young Judaea sections, they lived in three locations during the nine months. Kraus’s section started in Jerusalem, where they resided in apartments on Young Judaea’s Beit Ar-El campus. Students concentrated on Hebrew and other studies and toured the city. Kraus’s second location was in Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv, where she volunteered in a kindergarten three mornings a week.
“I still took day trips once a week to different places in Israel and took a Zionism class as well.” For her final three months, she traveled to the place of her choice, Arad, in the south of Israel, where she volunteered at a day care four days a week.
Kraus, the daughter of Bonnie and Solon City Councilman Edward Kraus, who are members of Solon Chabad, said about her gap year, “I would totally recommend it to anyone. It is so worth it.”
Young Judaea Year Course is one of many gap year programs in Israel
, according to I Connect and Masa Israel Journey regional coordinator Mirit Balkan at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. Masa (Hebrew for “journey”) is an umbrella organization with more than 200 different programs that involve study, travel and volunteer work in Israel.
“Today, we see more and more kids in Cleveland going on a gap year,” said Balkan, an Israeli living in Shaker Heights. “In the last year, we had an increase of 20 percent in total Masa numbers,” she said, from 64 in 2011 to 76 in 2012. The students include high school graduates pursuing a gap-year program, college students studying abroad and college graduates seeking further study and internships.
“The gap year is a win-win,” Balkan said. “Students are having fun and relaxing, and they are more motivated to go to college. They also earn 12 to 15 college credits. Parents are happy because the experience strengthens their Jewish identity.”
Masa programs offer several different courses of study, from science and music, to cooking, dancing and fashion design. Depending on their interests, students can attend classes at the University of Tel Aviv
and Hebrew University in Jerusalem
, which were added to the list of the 100 best universities in the world in 2012, Balkan said. Other available institutions include the Technion in Haifa and the Weitzman Institute in Rehovot, “top leading institutions for science and research.”
I-Connect is a local effort of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland to provide “a continuum of meaningful Israel experiences” for young adults ages 18 to 30, Balkan said. Experiences start with Birthright and continue with Onward Israel summer internships and Masa programs.
Among Masa gap-year programs is Aardvark Israel
, a program recently featured by The Jerusalem Post, which combines immersion into Israeli society with community service, internships, and educational programs, according to Helen Wolf, Israel programs director at The Jewish Education Center of Cleveland. JECC offers need-based scholarships for Masa programs. Wolf said the Jewish Federation of Cleveland realizes the importance of a gap year in Israel and helps with Masa funding.
Of those students taking a gap year in Israel through Masa, 65 percent are graduates of Fuchs Mizrachi, a Modern Orthodox day school in Beachwood, Balkan said.
“Just about every student goes,” said Rabbi Avery Joel, who heads Mizrachi’s high school. “We view Fuchs Mizrachi as a five-year program with the fifth year in Israel. It’s the norm. Each year, we have a number of students stay a second year (in Israel). It’s a great opportunity for them to solidify their Jewish identity.”
“A year in Israel was amazing,” said 2012 Mizrachi graduate Leora Jaffe, who spent her gap year at Midreshet HaRova seminary
in Jerusalem’s Old City. “By the end of the year, it surpassed all of my expectations. I learned so much inside and outside the classroom.”
In October, Jaffe, the daughter of Marlyn and Ari Jaffe of University Heights, said she will return to Israel to study at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, where she will major in political science and minor in Jewish history.
Scores of students from Orthodox day schools Hebrew Academy of Cleveland and Mosdos Ohr Hatorah in Cleveland Heights are spending the year in Israel annually. Hebrew Academy has been sending its graduates to Israel since the 1950s.
“I’ve wanted to come to Israel since I was a teenager but did not find the opportunity with just the business of life,” said Weeks, who has a bachelor’s degree from Cleveland State University in international relations with a concentration in the Middle East. He said he had “a desire to connect with my people, to be part of the larger culture and community, and to walk the land of my forefathers.” He also wanted to see the holy sites and to gain a deeper understanding of Israel’s domestic and international struggles. Studying at Tel Aviv University allowed him to realize all of those goals, he said.
Highlights of his year ranged from experiencing an election season to participating in Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) in the country. “The spirit of community and the reality of feeling like I am at home is something that is not like any other place I have been in the world.”
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News. Photo credit: Rachel Kraus