Meir Balofsky, the director of informal education at Bar-Ilan University, was in Toronto last week to convince graduating high school students of the value of learning and living abroad.
Balofsky, who visited students at schools including the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto and Ulpanat Orot Day School, was promoting Bar-Ilan’s Israel Experience program.
“I think what people should do is recognize the value of taking a gap year after high school for themselves,” Balofsky said.
Although a gap year is traditionally thought of as a year away from traditional schooling – a chance for young people to work, travel and gain real-life experience – this program combines the benefits of an exchange program with an opportunity to live and work in a society so different from their own.
He said students who were raised in Jewish schools, were members of synagogues and youth groups and have “learned about Israel either from the Tanach or the news, should take a year and be in Israel, hands on, and experience it, and solidify everything you’ve learned.
“This program was born out of this idea that even kids who understood the value of going to Israel for a year weren’t going because they had no interest in spending the whole year in a yeshiva or a seminary,” Balofsky said.
On the other hand, most of the other opportunities were too much on the secular side.
“They thought, ‘If I’m just going to go to a university, why don’t I just go to one here? What do I need to go to Israel for?’”
Balofsky said Israel Experience is an Orthodox program that balances the two sides of the religious spectrum, offering Judaic studies and general studies courses in English.
While the women and men are separated for the Judaic studies classes, they study together for the general studies classes "so they really get that flavour of a traditional learning environment.”
Students get full credit for the courses they complete, which is “easily transferable” to a North American school.
Following the program, students have the choice to return home to pursue an education at a North American school as a second-year student, or continue with their studies at an Israeli university.
“On average, about 20 per cent of our students stay in Israel. Some go to yeshivas, some go to the army, or they can choose to stay at Bar-Ilan and do their whole degree in English,” Balofsky said.
He said the classes are held at the university, but the dorms for the program participants are off-campus.
“Because of that, they’re able to better supervise the students, organize social programming each night,” Balofsky said.
“We’re really able to create our own sense of family.”
Within the program, which is in its third year, students are also offered opportunities for internships, community service placements, Israel advocacy training and travel.
“We think learning about Israel should be a hands-on experience, too.”
Balofsky added how important he thinks it is for young students to take advantage of an opportunity to live away from home for a year.
“There’s a new trend of students who feel like they don’t want to miss a year. But whether you’re done in three or four years, no one is going to care.”
For more information, or to apply, visit www.israelxp.com.