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July 29, 2020 9:38 am

With Government Approval, Israel’s Gap-Year Programs Set to Reopen With Challenges Ahead

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A yeshiva student. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. – Even as the coronavirus continues to spike—interrupting work and school plans for both those in Israel and those aiming to enter the country—Interior Minister Aryeh Deri announced last week that Israel would begin approving entry visas for foreign students planning to arrive this fall to study in gap-year programs, including at yeshivahs and seminaries. In a typical year, more than 12,000 yeshivah and seminary students arrive from aboard annually to study individually and as part of programs around the country.

The exception was made as non-Israelis are still not allowed into the country in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus at the border.

The Israeli government originally said that only students enrolled in one of the 50 participating “Masa Israel Journey” yeshivahs and seminaries would be issued visas. But after the heads of more than 150 schools formed a broad united coalition lobbying the government to open the skies for all students, the decision was reversed. Masa is an organization that provides Israel experiences for students founded by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Needless to say, those who run these educational institutions will face unprecedented challenges in maintaining the well-being of their students while following the stringent guidelines set forth by the Israel Ministry of Health.

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At the same time, despite the fact that some of the programs anticipate fewer students arriving, operational costs have increased significantly, many having to do with the extra precautions that need to be put in place in light of the pandemic. Also, scholarship opportunities for students are much harder to come by as a result of the corona-induced world financial crunch.

‘Focus on the positive’

Rabbi Reuven Taragin, dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel in the Old City of Jerusalem, told JNS that he believes that “the government was so impressed how all of the 150 institutions came together professionally” that they decided to allow foreign students in.

Despite ongoing outbreaks of the virus, he says he does not anticipate numbers to drop at his yeshivah, with 50 first-year students expected to arrive in the fall with another 50 second-year students registered.

However, Taragin notes that his school will incur exorbitant costs because of the situation. “We will have to invest tens of thousands of shekels in order to create small capsules for learning [as required by the Health Ministry]. The students will be on campus more and spend more Shabbats on campus; therefore, we will have to hire more staff. We will have higher insurance costs as well.”

Additionally, he said, “there is a great need for scholarships—much more than usual.”

Taragin, who also serves as the educational director at World Mizrachi, the global Religious Zionist movement, has launched an online campaign under Mizrachi’s umbrella in partnership with 50 yeshivahs and seminaries to help bridge the financial gap caused by an unforeseen reduction in programmatic subsidies and the exponential increase in scholarship requests.

When asked what his expectations are for the upcoming year when faced with so many challenges, the rabbi said, “Coming to Israel to study for a year is something we shouldn’t take for granted. We hope our students have a better appreciation of being able to come when it’s so difficult, and this will help them focus on the positive as opposed to the limitations and challenges.”

‘Building relationships with families’

Meryl-Lee Avraham, assistant director at the Machon Ma’ayan women’s seminary located at the Givat Washington Educational Campus in the Shfela Region, told JNS that her school usually attracts around 60 gap-year students, but this year the institution expects a bit fewer. Machon Ma’ayan brings together young women from a diverse range of backgrounds to learn Torah.

She said that “while normally 60 percent of students seek financial aid, this year is much higher with around 90 percent asking for scholarships.”

In fact, she continued, “some of the students are still waiting to hear if they can attend because of financial constraints, which is normally not the case so close to the start of the session, but we are working hard with each individual student to try and make it happen.”

Her institution is also part of the Mizrachi emergency campaign to raise funds for scholarships. She was impressed that so many alumnae from the seminary opened CauseMatch pages in order to assist.

Avraham said that when it comes to Health Ministry rules, Machon Ma’ayan might have an advantage over other programs in keeping to the strict guidelines. “During the first wave in the spring, we stayed open with 18 students remaining in Israel.”

She said the students adapted to the new realities, moving from the dorm to apartments in small numbers, and at times attending classes on Zoom. “We feel really lucky that we have been through this already. We know how to get through it again, and we’re confident that we will put together the best [health] plan possible,” said the director.

Avraham added that “this pandemic has given us a lot of challenges, but also a lot of opportunities. For example, thanks to Zoom, we held ongoing classes during the summer and even held classes for some of the parents on the basics of kashrut for those girls who went home and wanted to start keeping kosher.”

In terms of the upcoming semester, she said “our school puts an emphasis on building personal relationships, and on how people can connect to each other and learn together. We hope to continue building relationships with the girls and their families through the use of technology, so the parents can see who the personalities are connecting with their daughters.”

‘So many requests for visas’

Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, executive director of the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, told JNS that his institution offers three tracks of learning for both young men and women. There is a program for post-college students who want to learn in a yeshivah setting, along with two post-high school gap year programs, one for students from modern orthodox homes, and another for public-school students with limited backgrounds.

While normally around 200 men and women arrive on campus each fall, this year he believes the post-college program and public-school gap program will see a decrease in 50 percent of participants, while the program for Modern Orthodox students will remain the same.

Shemtov told JNS that his staff is busy at work preparing the school to maintain Health Ministry compliance. “The students will arrive in Israel on three specific flights, and we will pick them up by bus from the airport and bring them to one of our six apartments, where they will serve out their quarantine.”

“During that time,” he said, “we will already have a Zoom area set up so they can begin their studies.”

Shemtov feels that the biggest challenge his students will encounter will take place even before they set foot on campus.

“The government just overturned their decision allowing so many yeshivahs to open. There are going to be so many requests for visas. I don’t know if the consulates [abroad] have the manpower to process all the requests on time, especially with all the paperwork involved. That’s the big fear.”

Nevertheless, he remains optimistic. “Obviously, the confusion and spike in the virus in Israel present a challenge. We are confident our students will accept that challenge and adhere to the health rules, and we will get through this.”

On an equally optimistic note, he said, “every descent in this world leads to ascent. Once this is behind us, I am confident that there will be an influx of students learning here and at our new campus currently under construction at the entrance to the city. I’m optimistic that in 2021, Israel will return to what it was before—and so much more.”

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