by Rabbi Todd Berman
In a few weeks time, literally, dozens of recruiters, teachers, and administrators will be arriving in the U.S. from Israel. Sent by yeshivot and seminaries, universities, and a host of gap year programs, they come full of excitement, ideas, and energy. They bring with them invitations for students to study in top universities, learn Torah in yeshivot, serve in the Israeli Army, tour the holy land, and participate in volunteer capacities in every sector of the Jewish and Arab population. The gap year, college, and young adult programs offer a unique opportunity for both communities; but perhaps not in the way most people think.
Many in the American Jewish community are searching for ways to assist Israel, yet they probably don’t include support for these programs on the top of the Israel aid list. While buying Israel bonds, funding the various PACs, and engaging in “Hasbara” are all important projects, few realize the great gift long term programs are for Israeli society and economy.
Programs such as MASA Israel Journey, a joint venture of the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, boasts of over 160 affiliated programs for students ages 18 to 30. Just working out the math, the amount of support this gives the country, both in terms of morale and finances, is staggering. If programs average 50 or so participants, MASA helps to bring approximately 8000 students to Israel for one or two semesters annually. In many sectors, these students will come even in the most trying of circumstances such as war when other tourists stay away. Often part of the year is dedicated to aiding the country in various ways including working in hospitals, volunteering in soup kitchens, mentoring victims of terror, and assisting the elderly. That alone offers a powerful boost to Israel. Not to mention the high number of students who feel empowered on campus or eventually make aliyah and serve in the IDF. One couldn’t ask for a greater gift than that.
When we factor in the financial support these programs offer in addition, the gift from the Diaspora is mindboggling. 8000 students pay on average close to $20,000 each. That works out to be 160 million dollars in tuitions alone. This money helps employ teachers, administrators, professors, tour guides, cooks, and a host of others directly connected to a myriad of Israeli institutions. Add to that the cost of flights, visitations by relatives and friends (who often stay in hotels), dining at restaurants, purchases, and admission to tour sites, the total is probably one and half times that or at least $240 million. In the aggregate, these programs are simply a financial watershed for the Jewish State.
But what Diaspora communities receive in return for this investment is priceless.
Imbibing Jewish and Israeli culture and history, developing proficiency in Hebrew and Jewish texts, and gaining a deep sense of Jewish peoplehood and purpose, these young adults return ready to both serve and to lead. They are the future lay and professional teachers, rabbis, synagogue presidents, and Federation board members. As a former Hillel professional and presently as a teacher and administrator in Israel, I have seen and continue to see firsthand the empowerment and investment instilled in those returning from Israel. Last year one of my former students brought British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks to speak at Columbia University. The motivation came from his teachers in Israel and the connections to England were also created there.
This sense of empowerment was equally true about those who learned in Orthodox yeshivot and non-denominational year course programs. Almost any other Jewish experience pales in comparison to the power of the year in Israel. The critical social bonds and memories of the experience function to foster creativity and a sense of responsibility for the Jewish people both at home and worldwide. And these young adults are the ones who will maintain the bridge between Israel and the Diaspora in the years to come.
This is simply a win-win for the entire Jewish people.
Rabbi Todd Berman is the Associate Director of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, a yeshiva in Jerusalem.