Nine college juniors who grew up as the closest of friends in the suburbs along Philadelphia's Main Line struck upon an idea: Come to Israel, for a semester, together.
And so, here they are, living as roommates in the dorms of Tel Aviv University, taking classes on Israeli politics, cooking Shabbat meals together, whitewater rafting down the Jordan River, hiking the Galilee and even taking in a techno-music festival in the desert.
"When you are here for a semester, you really get to do every little thing, not just touristy things but what Israelis do. And getting to interact with Israelis gives a totally different view of what Israel is," said Adam Gilberg, 21, who studies at Bucknell University.
The idea took off after several of the friends, most of whom go to different colleges, returned from Birthright trips to Israel, the ones that bring young Jews on free 10-day tours of the country. Before then, those in the group who had plans to go abroad for a semester had chosen cities like Barcelona, Florence and Sydney. But the time on Birthright made them realize they wanted to get to know their homeland better; one by one, they convinced each other it would be an even richer experience to all come together.
At a time when many young American Jews feel little attachment and even alienation from Israel, a number of Philadelphia-area, Jewish college-age students are finding their way to Israeli universities and study programs, discovering not only the permutations of the country, but more about themselves along the way.
Israel provides opportunities to study not just at the college level, but for those between high school and college who are looking for a meaningful way to spend their "gap year." Mollie Gettlin, 18, from Fort Washington, found her ideal way to spend such a year in Hadassah's Young Judaea Year Course.
Now, every chance she gets, she joins her roommates on the beach a few blocks from the apartment they share in a working-class suburb of Tel Aviv.
One volunteers for Magen David Adom, the Israeli version of the Red Cross; another at a soup kitchen. Yet another leads senior citizens in aerobics at an old-age home, and Gettlin herself has been volunteering at a local museum and has tutored Sudanese refugees in English.
"I have made the best friends in the world, and we have lived and visited some of the most interesting places in the country," said Gettlin.
For now, home is an apartment in a four-story walk-up in a concrete building populated mostly by immigrants from the former Soviet Union. It's their third and final stop during the yearlong program, following three-month stays in Jerusalem and in the Negev Desert town of Arad.
"As a Jewish American, this isn't just somewhere else in the world," said Gettlin. "It's our homeland, and it's worth coming here to try to connect."
Recent studies have shown that despite the success of programs like Birthright, there is evidence of a drop in identification with Israel by American Jews, especially younger ones.
Their parents and grandparents may have felt aligned with an Israel they saw in heroic terms as a rugged new nation, a safe haven for Jews after the Holocaust, which managed to win seemingly miraculous victories over its enemies. Today's younger people came of age when Israel was locked in struggles with successive Palestinian uprisings, waves of terror and controversial wars, according to Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, who focuses on Diaspora Jewish identity.
Cohen also attributes the lack of connection to the increased integration and assimilation into American society by this generation, coupled with a sense by some that Israel no longer needs to be the center of Jewish identity.
But for those who do decide to come to Israel — specifically to do a semester or year here during college — there is a sense in conversations with them that their time has been deeply meaningful in boosting their Jewish identities and their understanding of real life in Israel.
Gilberg, who grew up in Lower Merion, was especially moved by experiencing Israel's Memorial Day earlier this month.
"At 8 p.m., the sirens go off, and everyone, everywhere stops what they are doing to stand in silence," he said. "You don't experience that anywhere else in the world."
Orthodox families have long sent their sons to yeshivas, and their daughters to ulpanas and midrashot in Israel.
Zehava Elkaim, 19, has been spending this past academic year in the town of Beit Shemesh at a seminary for girls called Mahon Ma'ayan in a diverse program that includes hikes, internships and text study. Next year, she'll begin her freshman year at Yeshiva University's Stern College in New York, but she wanted this time in Israel for personal growth.
"I have become more of an independent person and grown such an incredible love for Israel that I never thought I'd be able to reach," she said. "I feel so comfortable here."
"You walk on to a bus and say, 'Chag Sameach,' and it's such a wonderful feeling. You feel like you are connected," said Elkaim, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia's small Sephardic community.
A relatively new address for studying in Israel is the international school at the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya, a private Israeli university known as the IDC. Here, students can get undergraduate or graduate degrees in English for the first time in Israel.
Wendy Ketter, director of the Raphael Recanati International School, herself originally from Philadelphia, says that students really see life in Israel up close.
"It's a whole different experience than coming just for a semester, when they come here for an actual degree," she said. "They have time to volunteer, work and get to really know the Israelis at the school, and it becomes a life-changing experience."
One of those students is Brett Goldman, 24, from Northeast Philadelphia, who spent the last year-and-a-half studying for a master's degree in government. In addition to his studies, during which he wrote a thesis on cyber-warfare and international law, he has worked at the university's Institute for Counter-Terrorism, done research on alterative energy, and helped organize one of the country's premier political conferences.
"I like the way life is here. It's so different to life in the United States," he said. "Things are more accessible, people are accessible, and everyone knows each other, making it easier to cultivate contacts.
"I've grown up a lot here, both personally and professionally," he continued. "You are going to change and grow during your time here. This is definitely a place to try to figure out your next steps." A fellow Philadelphia-area native at IDC is Jeremy Sable, 23, who's studying for a master's degree in counter-terrorism.
"I had this opportunity to come here, so I decided, why not take it? I would hate to come here and only know the country like a tourist," he said.
One of his unexpected interactions has been befriending young Arabs from Jaffa who play with him on a football team representing Tel Aviv and Jaffa, part of an amateur national league.
Brandon Fox, a Drexel University student who, with his twin brother Zach, is among the nine friends here studying at Tel Aviv University, said he feels that this time in Israel has been transformative.
"I talk about it a lot with my brother and another friend at Drexel about how we want to do Shabbat dinners regularly and go to services more often when we do go home. And that's not something I don't think we ever would have wanted if we had not come here," he said.
Several of their group traveled to Europe this spring, and along the way saw American students studying in cities like Athens, Barcelona and Rome.
"They are all unquestionably great cities of the world, but we talked about how there was something missing, how it was harder to connect with the people and the culture. We share a common bond with everybody and everything in Israel. Studying in Europe we may not have been able to experience that," said Fox.
"We all talk about how much we want to come back here," he continued. "We obviously miss our families, but we are not excited for the experience to end."