As an educator and doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, Rabbi Yehuda Seif saw students return from gap year yeshiva programs in Israel on a spiritual high. He also noticed some of those students’ interest in Torah gradually wane over their years at college.
“They are trained to learn Torah all day, in a setting where everyone around them is learning Torah, and then they come to a college setting and everything else in their lives is moving forward — science, math, English — but when it comes to Judaism, there’s a growing disconnect,” said Seif, who worked as a campus rabbi at Penn from 2002 to 2006 and completed his doctorate in religious studies there last year.
It doesn’t have to be this way, he thought. So this fall, the modern Orthodox rabbi is debuting a gap year yeshiva program in Jerusalem with separate tracks for men and women that integrates studying the humanities, volunteering and internships with the traditional study of Judaism in a Beit Midrash. The aim is to remedy the “attrition levels” that are “unacceptably high” among college students returning from Israel, he said.
“We’re really trying to create a different model” where students learn “what makes Israel this amazing place and not just in a four-wall Beit Midrash that could be anywhere in the world but just happens to be in Israel,” said the 36-year-old, who will make aliyah in July with his wife and five boys.
His Torah V’Avodah program will join a growing number of other gap year programs offered in Israel — including well-established yeshiva programs.
At the University of Pennsylvania, between 50 and 80 percent of the Orthodox freshmen begin their studies after taking a gap year at a seminary, said Rabbi Howard Alpert, director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.
“I think Rabbi Seif’s program will fit a specific niche among students whose goals are not well met by traditional programs,” said Alpert.
Despite his criticisms, Seif said he also still sees value in the existing yeshiva programs. He spent several years learning at Yeshivat Har Etzion before attending Columbia University. He eventually received his ordination from the yeshiva and said he “gained tremendously,” from the experience.
“Our high schools in America have changed in the last 20 years; their extracurricular offerings are much more rich, and it’s time for the gap year programs to also update,” said Seif, who was part of a Yeshiva University task force to re-evaluate the gap year experience for modern Orthodox students.
His broad, immersive approach means students will visit a kibbutz and can volunteer at organizations such as Magen David Adom, the national emergency response service. Or, as next year is a shmita year, the seventh year of a cycle in which the Torah commands farmers to stop working the land, students could visit farms to see “how it’s actually playing out,” said Seif, who is planning to live in Efrat in the West Bank. The program also includes intensive Hebrew instruction, Holocaust education and a trip to Poland to visit former concentration camps.
Participants pay $25,000 for the experience, which is affiliated with and receives funding from Bnei Akiva of U.S. and Canada, a religious Zionist youth education organization, as well as private donors. Seif expects about 30 students in the inaugural class, who will live and learn in Katamon, a neighborhood in central Jerusalem.
He’ll measure success, he said, by the students who go on “to really continue an integrated lifestyle with a belief strongly in the ideals of Judaism and how Judaism interacts with everything in their lives.”
The idea of incorporating Torah learning and secular studies is not uncharted territory for Seif, who taught an Advanced Placement English class at Kohelet that also included Jewish law and thought.
Sarah Joseph, a student from Cherry Hill, N.J., in that AP class, will participate in Seif’s inaugural gap year program before she attends the University of Maryland.
The 18-year-old noted that she has encountered some of the people Seif described who were dissatisfied at an American campus after a year at a yeshiva in the Jewish state.
“Some people’s gap year program is a break from living life,” she said. “You go learn for a year and then you come back. I didn’t want it to be a break from life.”