Bridging the Gap Year: Hevruta Program forges Israeli-American Bonds

Hevruta program participants celebrate Hanukkah. Photo courtesy of the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Hevruta program participants celebrate Hanukkah. Photo courtesy of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

By Deborah Fineblum Schabb 

Eighteen-year-olds have a habit of forming close, family-like relationships with each other. It’s rare, however, that Israeli and American teenagers living thousands of miles apart have the chance to create such bonds. But this year, 25 teens have been doing just that as part of a first-of-its-kind program.

Watching the participants of the new Hevruta program for the so-called “gap year” between high school and college, it’s hard to imagine that these young adults didn’t always know each other, much less laugh at each other’s jokes. In reality, they grew up with languages, mores, and cultures that were quite literally a world apart. Yet with Hevruta’s new wrinkle in the familiar gap-year concept, they spend the year learning and growing together in Israel – and breaking down those barriers.

Further, if the initiators of the Hevruta program fulfill their mission, will be just the first generation to be prepared to step into Jewish leadership roles better equipped to bridge the gap between their Israeli and American worlds.

The conversation that was destined to give birth to Hevruta (Hebrew for friend or colleague, traditionally someone you learn Torah with) took place more than two years ago in Jerusalem when Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, president of Boston’s Hebrew College, shared with Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, a dream he’d had for years: a gap year that would bring Israeli and American high school graduates together in learning, volunteering, and a deep sense of communal belonging.

“I told him that, since both our institutions already had high school programs, we had a great opportunity to partner on a gap year,” Lehmann tells The vision they shared, he says, was “forming a pluralistic community that would reflect on the unique qualities both of these centers of Jewish life – America and Israel – have to contribute to the Jewish future.”

Within a few months, the Hevruta program, a collaboration between the Hartman Institute and Hebrew College, began to take shape with a formula that included Jewish learning, Israel advocacy seminars, and Jerusalem volunteer opportunities. Though many such programs timidly dip a toe in the water with a soft launch or a pilot year, that was not the Hevruta way. The program was immediately recruiting pretty aggressively and, last September, it welcomed 25 students – 17 Israelis and eight Americans – to the Hartman Institute campus.

“When I heard about the program, I liked that mix,” says Hevruta participant Aaron Tannenbaum of New York City. “I knew from the start that I didn’t want to be isolated in an American bubble here.”

Nine months in, he gives high marks to Hevruta’s balance of learning and volunteering – and there was one perk that really stood out.

“For the first time in my life I had chance to see myself not as a tourist but as part of Israeli life,” Tannenbaum says, explaining that following his senior year of high school that “was all about SATs and college applications,” Hevruta means “I’ll go to college with a broader view of Judaism, Israel and the world.”

Israeli program participant Noa Spielman, whose parents are American, looked high and low for the right mechina program (the Israeli term for the year between high school and mandatory military or national service). But she says that “nothing fit” until she saw an advertisement for Hevruta.

“At first we didn’t see we would have anything in common, but now we are so tight that it doesn’t matter where we came from,” Spielman says of her American counterparts.

The program has also deepened Jewish learning for the 25 young adults. Israeli participant Lital Fainberg’s favorite course focused on the women and several other lesser-known figures from the bible. The education, in her eyes, comes with a particularly practical benefit.

“The children I hope to have someday are going to know more about Judaism than I did growing up,” Fainberg says.

Hevruta courses also give program participants college credit, says Rabbi Leon Morris, a Hartman Institute vice president who directs Hevruta along with educator Chaya Gilboa.

“This helps the parents feel more comfortable with the investment of time and money – especially since gap-year programs are still not de rigueur for Americans outside the Orthodox community,” Morris says.

Recruiting for Hevruta is a two-pronged undertaking, going on simultaneously in both countries. Working through dozens of American Jewish day schools and rabbis who have attended Hartman Institute programs, Morris and his team track down high school seniors with leadership potential who are likely to benefit most from the Hevruta philosophy. The Israeli recruitment effort works with secular and religious high schools to pinpoint seniors who would resonate with Hevruta’s curriculum.

“We look for young people who love ideas and learning, who are animated by community service and committed to building a community together,” says Morris.

Next year’s Hevruta program is already filled, the rabbi reports, with half the incoming 40 participants from each country. He says that some of the students receive financial aid from a number of local sources to help defray the $25,000 tuition.

Israeli and American program participants have different – but in some ways similar – challenges to face after the gap year ends. Although their Israeli friends are destined to be in military uniforms in a few months’ time, the Americans may be preparing for another sort of conflict – against anti-Israel elements on their college campuses.

“I feel like now we have the tools we need,” says Boston-area resident Jonny Koralnik, who plans to attend Washington University in St. Louis in the fall. “After this year [in Hevruta], I feel 100 percent better equipped with knowledge and understanding to talk about Israel with anyone.”

Rabbi Lehmann says he has been impressed with the distance the group has traveled in maturity and cohesion. He visited with the group three times during the academic year.

“In the beginning, the Americans’ need for space and individuality conflicted with the Israeli focus on community,” he says. “But these differences soon gave way to deeper understanding and appreciation of each other. Seeing these future leaders learning to work together, it was more than we could have hoped for.”

As Hevruta’s inaugural year winds down, co-director Gilboa says she has witnessed the program’s success in closing the gap not so much in years, but in the chasm that exists between Israelis and American Jews.

“They started out as strangers and now share mutual respect, understanding, and love,” she says. “We’ve seen so much change in both groups. Living, learning, and working together has fostered the kind of open communication and caring between them. It’s something we know they’ll take back home with them, and use to create stronger ties between Jews.”

Perhaps program participant Jackie Bein of Stamford, Conn., puts it best.

“It’s strange, my roommate came in with the worst English of the Israelis and I had the worst Hebrew of the Americans,” she says. “But now we understand each other perfectly and we’re able to have great conversations going back and forth in both languages.”