When the coronavirus outbreak began to intensify and international travel became risky, if even possible, many gap-year programs made the decision to send their students home. Those that did stay open were no longer able to hold classes in person in order to follow Health Ministry guidelines. As the Israeli government continues to loosen social distancing regulations, gap-year programs have been faced with the question: What next?
Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah, a gap-year yeshiva located in Modi’in, and Machon Ma’ayan, a seminary for girls located in Givat Washington, are two of the few institutions that decided to continue providing classes, housing and food to students throughout the coronavirus outbreak.
Once the outbreak began to intensify, the two gap-year programs switched classes over to Zoom, but have since been allowed to return to in-person classes, while following certain rules and regulations.
After returning to in-person classes shortly before Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Machon Ma’ayan continued to record classes on the WebYeshiva platform so that girls who left the country could continue to view and join classes.
Migdal HaTorah was able to return to in-person classes shortly after Yom Ha’atzma’ut with classes split in different rooms and educators wearing masks and keeping their distance from students.
“Our hope is that by the end of May, we’ll be able to conduct some trips and obviously spend [the holiday of] Shavuot together in yeshiva,” explained Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Dvir Ginsberg to the Magazine
. The yeshiva was able to go on a hike and the beach in the past two weeks.
“It’s really about getting back to a sense of normalcy, but at the same time understanding that there’s the new normal now and that the regulations demand that we adjust our behavior,” explained Ginsberg.
THE GAP-YEAR programs are aware of the uncertainty surrounding international travel and are preparing for the possibility that students will need to stay a little later than usual.
“Machon Ma’ayan firmly believes that we are the home for these students,” said Dina Blank, executive director of the seminary, which will keep its doors open to allow the girls to stay until it’s safe and allowed to go back home.
Migdal HaTorah is preparing for the summer as well and rents apartments for the entire year, so students will “definitely” be able to stay, according to Ginsberg. “If enough stay, we’re considering a possible summer program to help with the guys to continue their learning through the summer,” said Ginsberg.
The economic impact caused by the pandemic has affected gap-year programs as well. Both the US and Israeli governments are offering aid that gap-year programs are eligible to receive. Parents of current students have also begun helping out.
Migdal is planning on doing a fundraiser in June and recognizes that tuition may be challenging for parents this year. While usually tuition arrangements are already in place by now, the coronavirus
outbreak has delayed matters as the yeshiva tries to “give parents space.” When the US reopens its economy, the yeshiva will begin to discuss tuition arrangements again and is “confident” that donors will recognize the importance of supporting the educational institution.
Machon Ma’ayan intends to continue to provide scholarships and help students get to the seminary, even if finances are an obstacle.
“We have many, many graduates who through the generosity of many made it here and they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do that. We do not have any intention of changing that policy,” explained Blank. “We will find a way.”
Blank stressed that Machon Ma’ayan is intent on making it possible for students to come and to continue its program, which receives both students who have had a Jewish elementary and high school education as well as those who have not.
“The comradery that takes place on our campus is something that is really unparalleled. We’re not giving up on that so fast. The girls feel extremely blessed. For many of them, their families back home are on total lockdown and quarantine. Here, while they are also on lockdown and quarantine, they’re on a beautiful campus and feel much more free,” explained Blank. “Every parent I’ve spoken to is thrilled in the sense that they recognize that Israel took strides a little bit before America, so they feel that their daughters are safer here.”
DANIEL GANOPOLSKY, 19, a student at Migdal HaTorah from Brooklyn, NY, decided to stay in Israel because he felt that he wouldn’t “have too many opportunities like this” and that the situation would probably return to normal quicker here than in New York. A lot of Ganopolsky’s friends in Israel did decide to go back home, but most of his friends at the yeshiva decided to stay, which was a big factor in his decision to stay.
While he would have preferred to be spending his year in Israel not in lockdown, Ganopolsky says that the situation still hasn’t been “too negative” and that it helped him appreciate certain things, such as when a neighbor brought over food during the lockdown. The lockdown also gave him time to learn, read and catch up on sleep.
Ganopolsky is planning on coming back to the yeshiva for a second year and will “hopefully be able to make up for whatever time I missed during the lockdown.”
The gap-year student explained that while his parents would have liked him to be at home, they did understand that he would probably be safer in Israel than in New York. While many yeshivas closed, “Migdal was open. We had classes over Zoom, they supplied us food, they extended our learning schedule an extra week and started early, so there was less Bein HaZmanim (holiday break) – which sounds like a bad thing, but it’s really a good thing, since we’re on lockdown and can’t really do anything,” explained Ganopolsky.
Gap year programs are also preparing for multiple scenarios that could arise in the next school year, while still ensuring that they’re able to operate.
“The No. 1 priority for us is the health and well-being of every student,” stressed Ginsberg. “That being the case, we also recognize how important the year in Israel is.” The yeshiva is preparing for multiple scenarios that could arise in the next year, including possible quarantining facilities, social distancing guidelines and orientations concerning hygiene, masks, etc. The schedule may even need to be changed depending on the situation. “There’s so many unknowns.”
“We just want to make sure that students know that the opportunity to join us at Migdal is there for the taking and we feel that once we finalize our plans they’ll really reflect a certain level of diligence and attention to detail that should assist a lot of students who might be on the fence about coming,” explained Ginsberg.
“Nobody knows exactly what things are going to look like come September,” said Blank, adding, however, that they’re optimistic considering that Israel took measures quickly and is already able to relax restrictions that the seminary will be able to operate in September, even though there may be “modifications,” including possible quarantine and restrictions on traveling to others for Shabbat. “We are setting ourselves up for all of those possible permutations.”
EMA CARE, an English-language healthcare service that advises those in Israel on how to access the healthcare system, has started a campaign to find ways to allow gap-year programs to continue to operate.
The service has been serving as a liaison between gap-year programs and the Israeli healthcare system and government before and throughout the outbreak.
Not a single student in programs under EMA Care’s management has been infected with the novel coronavirus.
Dr. Eliana Aaron, previously the medical officer in the former US Consulate General in Jerusalem, has been working with the Health Ministry to create pandemic protocols and legislation to allow gap-year and foreign student programs in Israel to continue to operate this year and to reopen again next year. The service believes that students should be treated separately from tourists as their situation is different.
According to EMA Care, an estimated 80% of programs will close down permanently if they are not able to reopen in the fall.
Interior Minister Arye Deri signed an order last week allowing foreign students to enter Israel to study in yeshivot and religious seminaries, as well as universities and other programs.
Students will be required to undergo 14 days of quarantine and educational institutions will need to provide living quarters where students can self-isolate. The decision includes Naale and MASA programs. In order to be approved to enter Israel, students will file for a visa through their educational institution, instead of through a consulate as is regularly done.
The writer is a dorm counselor at Migdal HaTorah.