I’m writing this article fresh off a plane from Israel, bleary-eyed with jet lag and already missing the smell of falafel and the sound of Hebrew. The last seven days were anything but a typical spring break. Instead of tanning on the beach in Cozumel or zipping down the snowy slopes in Colorado, I harvested Israeli turnips and worked in a soup kitchen as part of a Jewish National Fund trip—and loved every minute of it.
Besides traveling for free (after raising $950 for JNF’s Blueprint Negev campaign), the best part about Alternative Spring Break was that it was my third Israel experience during my first three years in college—and that’s a testament to the sheer number of Israel opportunities available to the Jewish college student.
Whether you want to be there for ten days or ten months, whether you want to volunteer or study, there’s a trip for you. Many are free or low-cost, and all will change your life in some way.
It’s Your Birthright
Like more than 200,000 other college students in the last decade, my first encounter with Israel was on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. This ten-day whirlwind tour of every major historical and tourist site got me hooked.
Birthright is perfect for cash-strapped college students because the winter or summer trips are free for Jewish young adults ages 18 through 26. Participants are only responsible for a $250 deposit upon registration; the deposit is refunded immediately upon your return from Israel. You can also extend your stay, but you’ll have to pay the airline fee for changing your ticket.
I knew my first time in Israel would be special, but there’s something especially meaningful about sharing it with forty other first-timers—like the moment I stood in front of the Western Wall, hugging the girls around me as we all cried, overwhelmed by seeing what remains of the wall that fortified the ancient Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
I went on Birthright with students from my university because I wanted to share the experience with my roommate, but you can choose from more than twenty trip providers, including the Union for Reform Judaism KESHER program. Each year some 400–500 Reform Birthright participants experience Shabbat services with Israeli Reform Jews and, atop Masada, discuss the challenges of living in the diaspora.
University of Hartford sophomore Ally Sobol went on a KESHER Birthright trip in summer 2008. “I wasn’t really expecting it to change my outlook on my religion,” she says, but six months after her return, Ally reports going to synagogue more often and having a better understanding of the Arab-Israel conflict because of the Israeli soldiers who joined her group. No matter which trip provider you choose, every Birthright group will invite several Israeli soldiers who are the same age as participants to enjoy a break from their military duty while giving Jewish students an idea of what it is like to serve in the army.
“You’re going to get a lot out of [Birthright], just like I did,” Ally says.
If ten days in Israel sounds too short, how about ten months?
That’s one of the ideas behind Tamarim: The Netzer Year, a gap-year program for high school graduates hankering to expand their cultural and intellectual horizons before attending college. Sponsored by the URJ and Netzer Olami, the international Reform Zionist youth movement, sixteen American and thirty-five European students in this year’s program will spend ten months living together and working alongside Israelis.
Tamarim features three experiences: Jerusalem, the kibbutz, and the personal. In Jerusalem, participants choose one of two leadership education programs: Etgar, which primarily engages young Reform leaders, or Machon, which involves leaders from different Jewish youth movements around the world. (Either way, the students live independently, planning their own budgets and meals.) The teens then live on a kibbutz for two months, after which they can choose to stay there, study at the University of Haifa, volunteer in an Israeli city, or hike across the country.
When I caught up with Micah Weiss, 19, from Dallas, he was almost halfway through his Netzer Year experience—and, he told me, “it’s been the best decision of my life to date.”
It all started when Micah took a step back from the senior-year barrage of college applications and thought about what he really wanted. His parents had experienced and believed in gap-year programs, and had spent time in Israel, too. Plus the Netzer Year was “nowhere near as expensive as one year of school” at some of the colleges Micah was considering. So he deferred his acceptance to DePauw University in Indiana and headed for Israel.
Nowadays, Micah says, “when my friends from high school tell me how they wake up for classes on a Wednesday morning at 10 or 11 and breathe a sigh of relief over some extra sleep, I tell them about waking up at 5:30 A.M. in the desert and hiking for eleven hours over mountains, through canyons, along cliffs, and around life-sustaining desert springs.”
And now that he’s seen the holy city of Jerusalem glow on Yom Kippur and danced jubilantly in the streets on Simchat Torah, Micah says he’s considering making aliyah (immigrating to Israel): “I may not come here next year or the year after, but I’m going to come here,” he says. “I’m going to be an Israeli citizen.”
Plenty of Possibilities
College students can also dive into an Israel adventure—and, most likely, receive credit; according to a recent survey of 100 U.S. schools, more than half offer some form of study abroad program in Israel (whether it’s a full-fledged university-sponsored trip or transfer credit for studying with another school).
The Peace, Justice, and the Environment Fall College Semester at the Reform Movement’s Kibbutz Lotan, for example, offers 16 college credits from UMass Amherst, transferable to all U.S. universities, to both undergraduate and high school graduates not yet enrolled in college. This Reform kibbutz in the Arava desert also offers a six-week Green Apprenticeship program in permaculture design, sustainable agriculture, and more at its Center for Creative Ecology which qualifies for college credit through many universities.
MASA, a joint project of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency of Israel, connects thousands of Jews ages 18 to 30 with more than 150 long-term programs in Israel, including internship and volunteer opportunities. If you’d like to tackle environmental challenges, there’s the Arava Institute; if Hebrew’s your interest, explore the many ulpan programs; if you’re craving a Reform experience in Israel, the Reform Semester in Israel provides an array of lectures, Shabbat experiences, and optional excursions to Spain or the former Soviet Union. Once you find the program for you, MASA offers every participant a one-time grant up to $2,000 (the amount varies depending on program length).
The programs are out there, and so is the money. You’ll travel safely, too (access these program security guidelines). One question remains: When will you be there?
—Deborah Swerdlow, fourth-year journalism student at the University of Florida, Gainesville and former co-president of UF’s KESHER group