Every year, hundreds of eager eighteen-year-old girls from all over the world step off the plane at Ben Gurion airport to spend a year studying in seminaries across Israel. These girls, also known as ‘sem girls,’ devote their whole academic year to Judaic study programs. Although learning is a major aspect of the seminary year, there are other important experiences that motivate many recent high school graduates, especially from America, to spend their gap year in Israel.
For Talia Epstein, who hails from Boston, coming to Israel for the seminary was the next stop following her high school graduation. A student at Jerusalem’s Midreshet Lindenbaum, Epstein told Tazpit News Agency that her decision to study in Israel for the year was a popular choice for many high school graduates from her Boston Jewish community. “It is a popular decision from where I’m from,” she said. “But this was my decision to come to Israel, and I hope to gain a lot of knowledge in Halacha and Hebrew studies this year.”
Others, like Jackie Federbush from New Jersey, who is studying at Machon Maayan in Givat Washington are not only interested in learning religious studies. Federbush explains that she was also “looking to explore the land of Israel.”
One of the unique aspects of the seminary year, is the opportunity it provides girls from abroad to give back to Israel. Through the encouragement of their seminaries and their own will, many girls choose to participate in chesed (volunteer) opportunities.
There are even organizations that assist seminary girls in volunteer activities. One such student organization is known as Kedma, which has branches in both Israel and the US. For the past 15 years, Kedma has been working with university, seminary and yeshiva students, encouraging them to get involved with disadvantaged communities in Israel.
Having reached over 10,000 students through its leadership training and social action programs, Kedma has alumni serving in leadership positions on campuses, youth movements and Jewish communities all over the world.
In Israel, Kedma partners with well-known Israeli chesed organization such as Magen David Adom, Yad Sarah, Meir Panim, and others, and creates unique volunteer programs for visiting seminary girls and yeshiva students. These programs include everything from blood drives and medical clowning to volunteering in soup kitchens, old age homes, and women shelters. Kedma even has a traveling choir.
Chana Rivka Poupko, the special projects coordinator at Kedma told Tazpit News Agency that the volunteering programs are a positive experience for everyone involved. “Once the girls start volunteering in these programs, the impact is positive for everyone. Volunteering in Israel adds another important element to the seminary year and getting to know Israeli society.”
Recently, Kedma held their annual inter-seminary choir competition called Songs of Hope, which raises money for special Kedma projects aimed towards women in need. Girls from seminaries across Israel created and performed musical productions with the themes of Jerusalem and Israel in an evening that took place at Jerusalem’s Ramada Hotel in January. The money raised from the evening will be used for care packages that will be sent to mothers of cancer patients.
Thanks to these ‘chesed’ experiences, there are seminary girls who further deepen their connection to the Land of Israel, to the point that some even decide to make aliyah and move to Israel permanently.
Gabriela Mizrahi from Boston who is studying at Migdal Oz, said that “volunteering at a local Jerusalem school through my seminary has really influenced my decision to make aliyah next year.”
“I came into this year expecting to have some fun and learn a bit but in the end I got so much more. I had the opportunity to give back to my country, and I have now a forged a deep connection to the land and the people,” said Mizrahi.