After high school graduation last year, as his friends went off to college, Ari Feinstein headed to Israel. He taught English to 10-year-olds in Upper Nazareth, worked on a camel farm near Dimona, studied in Jerusalem and participated in simulated basic training on an Israeli army base.
"I don't know any other American kid who went around carrying an M-16 for two months," he said. "Or had as much immersion in Israeli society."
Ari, 19, now a freshman at UC Davis, was one of 300 high school graduates participating in Year Course, a nine-month program of Young Judaea, the Zionist Youth Movement of Hadassah that has sent more than 5,000 teenagers to Israel since its founding in 1956.
Young people like Ari have been going to Israel for decades, but the numbers are likely to increase substantially with the recent introduction of MASA, a new long-term funding initiative between the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel and its partner organizations worldwide that is targeted to reach $100 million per year, perhaps as early as 2008. This year $25 million was made available. The program is designed encourage more students to participate in Year Course and other similar post-high school or "gap-year" courses.
At a cost of about $13,000 to $18,000 for each student, these programs provide a break between high school and college and can include study, travel, work and community service. They allow students time for reflection, personal growth and often new or renewed religious commitment.
MASA, Hebrew for journey, started funding students who qualified on a need-basis in 2004-05, subsidizing more than 100 approved five- to 10-month Israel programs that assist 18- to 30-year-olds in building a solid connection to Israel. This year, MASA is helping to send 7,000 young adults worldwide to Israel, with hopes of sending 20,000 a year by decade's end.
According to MASA director Dr. Elan Ezrachi, "Our main goal is to enable young adults from all over the world to have an extended period in Israel and, by doing so, to strengthen Jewish identity, build up a connection to Israel and invest in their future roles as leaders in their home communities. And, from an Israeli perspective, they get a taste of the idea of aliyah."
The numbers of students taking advantage of such programs historically have not been large among Reform and Conservative Jews, according to Joseph Blassberg, director of career counseling at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles. He said Milken sends about three or four graduates annually on one-year, post-high school programs and has found that colleges and universities generally approve students' requests to defer admission until the following September.
Among the Modern Orthodox, a gap year is de rigueur. Each year, approximately 1,500 to 2,000 Orthodox young men and about 1,600 young women, the majority from the United States, spend their post-high school year in yeshivot in Israel. They go for a year of intense study, with the boys often spending 12 to 16 hours a day poring over Jewish texts. They also all get an opportunity to reflect on their future from a Jewish perspective.
For Ira Silver, 18, a recent graduate of Yeshiva University High School (YULA) for Boys who dreams of becoming an investment banker, the year has provided an opportunity to ponder the intersection of his religious and professional life.
Since September, he's been a student at Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh in Jerusalem. "Yeshiva gives you the opportunity to become stronger in your Torah," he said. "You know for sure that you can function in society as a successful investment banker and a religious Jew."
American students first began attending yeshivot in the 1970s, according to Asher Brander, rabbi of Westwood Kehilla and Israel guidance counselor at YULA for Boys. There were a few earlier, he said, but the phenomenon got into full swing in the 1980s.
About 30 Modern Orthodox yeshivot are in existence, mostly centered in or around Jerusalem, and each hosts about 60 to 70 students. They vary in terms of academics, ideology, geography, supervision and warmth.
Some, like Lev HaTorah and Yeshivat Eretz, focus on college preparatory skills, teaching boys how to live as committed Jews on college campuses. Others, including Ner Ya'akov, Neveh Zion and Kesher, are set up to deal with at-risk teens.
But overall, the process -- and the dramatic progress students make -- is similar at all schools. "They sit over a piece of Talmud or a piece of Torah, and they discover themselves," Brander said.
Yeshivot for young women also date back to the 1970s with some, including Machon Gold and Michlala, established even earlier. But they total only about 20 today, providing fewer places and stiffer competition than at men's yeshivot.
New yeshivot, however, are being launched. The Tiferet Center for Advanced Torah Studies for Women opened its doors last September, admitting 48 students from an applicant pool of 200. According to co-founder Rabbi Azriel Rosner, Tiferet was founded because of need and because of a desire to create a caring and communal environment.
Women's yeshivot also are differentiated by their unique perspective. At Michlelet Esther, said co-principal Rabbi Baruch Smith, "our forte is very much in finding a girl who is not highly motivated in her yiddishkayt, or Torah outlook, and in giving her knowledge and inspiration to be religious." Founded in 1995, the yeshiva accepts 78 students each year from 120 to 200 applicants.
For Lauren Katchen, a YULA graduate who attended Michlelet Esther in 2003-2004, the experience was the "best decision I ever made in my whole life." Now a student at Queens College, City University of New York, Katchen, 20, is majoring in textiles, art history and business. She wants a career in fashion, but her experience in Israel altered her perception of her eventual role as a mother.
"It didn't even occur to me that it's such an important thing to raise your kids on your own, that you are the mother to instill in them good character traits and see them on the right path," she said.
An innovative yeshiva, Midreshet Darkeynu opened three years ago to address the needs of religious girls with learning disabilities and who, in the words of parent Joelle Keene, "are just a little different." Keene's daughter, Hannah, 19, is taking a second year there, studying and working in a kindergarten. "She's getting a richer religious identity in a beautiful strong way, as well as social experience and independence," Keene said.
"The year in Israel is unique," said Shira Hershoff, Israel guidance counselor at YULA for Girls."The idea of separating from American culture, the idea of separating from all the distractions to spend the year in Israel connecting to people, connecting to the land and focusing on Torah studies is a very powerful year.'
In the Charedi community, a gap year is not customary for boys nor necessary, because they don't go on to college, according to Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. They generally transition to an American yeshiva after high school and later to an Israeli yeshiva, where they spend several years and often make aliyah.
More commonly, the ultra-Orthodox girls spend a post-high school year in Israel, but the cost is often prohibitive and many take that year at an American yeshiva. Safran estimated that there are about 10 Charedi yeshivot for men and five for young women.
In the non-Orthodox community, there are fewer options for spending a gap year in Israel, although the number of opportunities are increasing, along with growing interest.
In fall 2005, Young Judaea enrolled its largest group ever, 400 teenagers, including 50 in Shalem, its track for Orthodox students. It still had a waiting list. Next year, the program hopes to admit 500 to 600 students.
Habonim Dror, a Progressive Labor Zionist Youth movement program and, in its 56th year, the longest-running program sending American teens to Israel, currently has 68 students in Israel, up from 30 last year. The teens live on a kibbutz for a half year and then live cooperatively in an urban setting. They study Hebrew, socialist Zionism and cultural Judaism and work on developing leadership skills and doing social justice work.
The yearlong Nativ, under the auspices of the Conservative movement's United Synagogue Youth, is celebrating its 25th anniversary and has a record 78 youths in Israel this year. Next year, the program is hoping to expand to 100 participants. They spend a semester in Jerusalem at Hebrew University or the Conservative Yeshiva and a semester living on a kibbutz or doing community service.
New programs are emerging, among them Carmel, initiated last year by the Union for Reform Judaism and billed as a first-year of college. With eight students in its inaugural year and 14 this year, Carmel combines study at the Lokey International Academy of Jewish Studies at the Leo Baeck Education Center and the University of Haifa.
Another new program is scheduled to begin in fall 2007 -- SIACH, a one-year pluralistic yeshiva, which will be based in Jerusalem. Its name means dialogue and discussion in Hebrew, and its focus will combine serious Torah study with Hebrew and other Jewish and Israeli learning.
"It's all about creating committed Jews," said SIACH director Rabbi David Harbater, whose goal is to create a gap-year revolution in the non-Orthodox community, similar to the development of such programs in the Orthodox community 30 years ago.
Peter Geffen, founder of New York's Abraham Joshua Heschel School, is also looking for a different model with his new program, Kivunim: New Directions. Set to open this fall with 48 kids -- half of whom have already signed up -- the program will combine experiential learning in Jerusalem with field trips every five weeks to explore the contemporary Jewish communities of Morocco, Lithuania, Hungary and other countries.
Believing that we are too focused on the past, Geffen wants to develop new Jewish leaders who have an understanding of the broader multicultural world and the necessity for co-existence. "There is no place in our agenda for our kids to imagine what the future should look like," he said.
Still, the current programs seem to be effective. Guidance counselor Hershoff reported that parents of both young women and young men have said to her, "I sent off a teenager, and I got back a mentsch."