Israel Emerges as Top Destination for American Teens Amid Pandemic

TEL AVIV—After she was accepted to Yale University, Tess Levy was excited at the prospect of leaving home in Los Angeles for the first time and joining the freshman class this fall on the leafy Ivy League college campus.

Instead, the 18-year-old is now ensconced in one of Tel Aviv’s hippest neighborhoods, Florentin, known for its trendy cafes, bars and restaurants. She had been exploring gap-year options once she got the sense that her first year at Yale would be radically different from what she imagined, with Yale’s decision to allow freshmen on campus only for the fall semester cementing her decision to defer her start for a year and spend a gap year in Israel.

“There’s a culture here that every mother and their dog sitter has a family that’s willing to take you in and care for you, which made me and my parents feel very comfortable about sending me here in such a tumultuous time,” said Ms. Levy.

Tess Levy takes a morning walk in the Mediterranean off Tel Aviv, where she has gone after Yale limited freshmen’s on-campus presence to the fall.

Long a destination for young Jews yearning to explore their religion and create a connection to the Jewish state, Israel is seeing a fresh explosion in gap-year students arriving from the U.S. and other countries. With few other countries accepting American students, Israel has emerged as a top destination for those seeking meaningful experiences beyond the confines of online learning from family couches.

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They are coming even though the country has just entered its second nationwide lockdown as cases of Covid-19 hit record levels and daily new cases are currently hovering at roughly 7,000 a day. The three-week lockdown, which started in mid-September, has disrupted some of the activities and work experiences the young people have planned for their year abroad but hasn’t deterred them.

Masa Israel, the organization overseeing nonreligious gap-year programming in the country, said it is seeing a 40% increase in gap-year participants compared with last year, of whom two-thirds are American. Israel has the most American students taking gap years, in part because only a handful of others are allowing foreign students, including the U.K., Ireland and Jamaica, according to Ethan Knight, executive director of the U.S.-based Gap Year Association.

“This year Israel is the number one international destination by far,” he said.

Protective masks lie near shofars in the apartment that Tess Levy shares with roommates during her gap year in Israel.

Under Israel’s current visa rules, only Jewish students are allowed to come for extended periods, organizers said. The government decided this year to grant permission to 21,000 foreign students to study in Israel, including those at Jewish seminaries and yeshivas as well as those doing nonreligious programming. The education ministry doesn’t have final numbers this year, but Masa Israel said it has about 5,000 students already in Israel on gap years and other programming for older people, and expects more than 2,000 by the end of the year.

Israeli gap-year organizers say their overall numbers of gap-year students have increased, even as the total number of American students spending gap years overseas has dropped.

Matthew Cooper, 18, from Harrison, N.Y., is living with his twin brother, Josh, in Tel Aviv after they deferred their admission to Duke University.

Matthew Cooper and his 18-year-old twin brother, Josh, from Harrison, N.Y., decided earlier this summer to defer admissions to Duke University. Their mom, Sharon, began exploring gap-year options after she realized their Duke experience wouldn’t be as they imagined it. The twin brothers are living in Tel Aviv with two other future Duke students and plan to move to Jerusalem for the second half of the academic year.

“Taking a gap year is a big insurance policy against college,” Matthew Cooper said. “If the gap year is great, it’s a life-changing experience. If the gap year kind of stinks, then you still have four years of college, and it’s hopefully more normal than starting college in 2020.”

The students take internships, volunteer or attend classes, which have mostly proceeded, albeit with modifications.

Mr. Cooper was meant to intern at a tech company in Herzliya, a seaside tech hub about 6 miles north of their apartment in Tel Aviv.  The coronavirus pandemic has pushed back the start date and has made commuting there complicated.

Before lockdown and after a two-week quarantine, he spent a few days exploring Tel Aviv. Now he and his roommates are playing pickup basketball and hosting small gatherings on their apartment’s balcony, in line with coronavirus restrictions. He worries that the good times might be short-lived.

“I fear that the whole thing can kind of be in jeopardy if they decide to test a couple of kids,” he said. “Social distancing has been super lax.”

Debbie Goldsmith, head of Aardvark Israel, which runs Mr. Cooper’s program, said seven of 170 students in the program tested positive for coronavirus about one week into a mandatory quarantine, after receiving negative test results before traveling to Israel. Four of the students had symptoms and three were asymptomatic. All have recovered, she said.

Sophie Dauerman, 18, from Vermont, is enrolled in a leadership program at a kibbutz, along with other international and Israeli students.

Sophie Dauerman wanted to live in a communal-style village to bolster her life and leadership skills before college. The 18-year-old Vermont native enrolled in a leadership program called Kol Ami, in which she is living on an Israeli kibbutz, Kiryat Anavim, along with international and Israeli students.

Ms. Dauerman opted for a gap year when she learned in July that Yale would allow freshmen on campus only for the fall and that all classes would be online, leaving her scrambling to find a program quickly.

In exploring her connection to Judaism, Ms. Dauerman is also observing the Jewish sabbath, called shabbat in Hebrew, for the first time. That has meant not using her phone and other electronics from sundown on Fridays to sunset on Saturdays.

“At home it would be extremely difficult for me to keep shabbat,” she said. “This is my opportunity to try it, and I really enjoy it.” Her program has proceeded largely as planned.

Israeli officials say they hope the programs can forge enduring ties between American Jews and Israel.

“The silver lining these graduates have found by coming to spend a gap year in Israel will provide them with the experience of a lifetime, creating lasting bonds with their program participants and with whichever part of the Israeli mosaic they’ve chosen to explore,” said Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Jewish Agency, a quasigovernment organization that oversees programming and projects to connect the Jewish diaspora to Israel, including the gap-year programs.

Tess Levy joins others in a run along a Mediterranean beach in Tel Aviv.

Sharon Cooper, Matthew and Josh Cooper’s mother, said that though the coronavirus situation in Israel was much more under control when she decided to send her sons there, she is still glad she did.

Mrs. Cooper said she hoped her sons would develop the same deep appreciation for the country that has meant so much to her family.  Her mother fled to Israel from Iraq in 1948, said Mrs. Cooper, who grew up in the U.S. but has extended family in Israel.

”I really want them to develop a love for the country—to live there and actually immerse yourself in the culture is a unique opportunity,” she said. “I am thrilled for them.”

Write to Felicia Schwartz at [email protected]

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