UJIA’s growing menu of 18+ programmes is attracting a higher take-up
By Simon Baker
A gap year in Israel has long been the pinnacle of experience in a Jewish youth movement.
Not only did they deepen an individual’s Jewish connection but over the years they provided a pool of future leadership for community organizations.
But in the past decade or so their popularity has begun to wane. The growing cost of university education in the UK has made some think twice about taking time out after school, while others might have had other aspirations for their gap year than spending it in in Israel.
Faced with these new challenges, the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) has not stood still. It has diversified opportunities to spend time in Israel after school. While year-long options at yeshivah, sem, kibbutz or machon (leadership training institute) remain available, young people can choose from a menu of shorter-term schemes ranging from two to five months, post- as well as pre-university, and internships which offer a taste of working as well as living in Israel.
“We decided a couple of things,” said UJIA chief executive Mandie Winston. “One was to see what we could do to make those programmes more affordable. We expanded our scholarship options.
“The other thing we have done is to realise that if you don’t go on a gap year when you finish A-levels, that is only one particular path. What is important here is not the moment in your lifetime when you do that but having the long-term experience.”
UJIA has a dedicated staff member whose role, she says “is going about and recruiting people wherever they are, in particular capturing the people who might not automatically have gone on a gap year — but that is no reason why they can’t experience Israel long-term”. The post is funded by Masa, the organisation set up the Jewish Agency and Israeli government to develop opportunities for diaspora youth.
“There is a big range of internship programmes which are really attractive to people,” she said. Participants can combine professional experience in the workplace — in areas such as Israel’s acclaimed hi-tech sector — with an educational and social programme where they can meet young Jews from other countries as well.
“What we have seen during the pandemic is the numbers of people taking up places on these programmes go up considerably — 30 per cent growth year on year over last three years, which is really quite remarkable,” she said.
Overall participation on programmes for those aged 18 and over has reached 500 this year (plus another 40 on the shorter Onward Israel scheme), compared to approximately 330 four years ago.
Gap year numbers (which include the shorter five-month as well as the full 10-month option) have increased from 66 to 114 over that period. There are another 114 at yeshivah and sem.
But the most significant leap is in those choosing some form of working experience, up from 78 in the 2017/18 academic year to 194. Aimed mainly at graduates, they include five-month internships in Tel Aviv where participants can develop career interests in law, accountancy and many other fields.
In addition, a small number go over on academic programmes or take the 10-month Masa teaching fellowship, teach Englishing to underprivileged children in various parts of Israel.
Most UK participants are on Masa programmes. “We are the Masa provider in the UK,” explained Ms Winston. “These programmes have been developed at scale which we could never do with a community of this size.”
Programme costs vary from £4,000 to £7,000 for five months, from £10,000 to over £20,000 for longer. “We have increased our financial support so the price for everybody across the board could be reduced,” said the director of the UJIA’s UK programme, Robin Ashleigh. “We spend over £150,000 in supporting young people to go on gap-year programmes.”
But one less expensive option aimed at university students is the Onward Israel scheme, a two-month summer experience which includes a work placement in Tel Aviv. It is an alternative that might appeal to some of those who missed out on the month-long summer tour at 16 because of the pandemic cancellations. Onward Israel is part of Taglit-Birthright and offers a broad range of areas from arts and culture to social justice and communty services.
The diversity of schemes means participants can tailor their time in Israel more closely to personal interests. A football programme, for example, is in the pipeline. They can also reach more widely across the community: one of the career-based initiatives offers computer training mainly for young Charedi women.
On average, around 1,200 teenagers go on Israel summer tours every year. “It would be great if we get to a point where a third of those could go on a gap year programme,” Ms Winston said. “That’s a lot of product for the leadership of the Jewish community.”
A great way to explore my Jewish identity
Dan Saipe, 19, from Manchester, who is going to Birmingham University to study economics, recently returned as a participant in the Aardvark Israel programme.
An alumnus of Bnei Akiva, he said, “I was always going to do a gap year but I was never sure which one”.
Aardvark Israel attracted him because of its flexibility, the choice of doing one or two semesters, from September to January and January to May, and working in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. He opted for two semesters, working on marketing and promotion for a firm in Jerusalem for the first and with an investment strategy company in Tel Aviv for the second.
“Tel Aviv is amazing, it’s really good for young people. They provide you with a flat and you share with five to eight students on the programme.”
While he worked remotely on the Tel Aviv leg, one of the highlights was getting to go to the Spacetrack Summit in the city in person.
The educational element included a twice weekly ulpan, regular tiyulim (excursions) and Monday night lectures on different topics ranging from “the Ethiopian community to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.
“It was a great way to explore my Jewish identity as well as gaining valuable life experience,” he said.