In the fall of 2014, an inquiry was made by an RKYHS Judaic studies faculty member about where a particular student would be spending a gap year in Israel. To the teacher’s surprise, he was told that this student would likely not be going to Israel at all. While some students may decide to go straight to college, this particular student was uniquely religiously motivated, and a gap year in Israel seemed like a natural next step. The teacher discovered that this student’s family was not able to afford the gap year, though the individual desperately wanted to go. While the yeshivot and seminaries do an admirable job providing scholarship opportunities, sometimes it just isn’t enough, and that was the case with this student.
Bothered by the situation, this teacher—along with other members of the RKYHS Judaic studies faculty—began the Kushner Israel Fund, which provides scholarship awards for students to spend a gap year in Israel. In its first year, most of the money was collected from faculty members, and a number of scholarships were given out. The student whose story was the impetus for this fund did end up spending the year in Israel, largely due to the money received from the Kushner Israel Fund.
The opportunity to spend a gap year in Israel is a gift with immeasurable value. There are many obstacles to living as a religiously committed Jew. Elementary schools and high schools provide a critical religious backbone for students; living and studying in Israel for a year allows students to take the values they have been taught at home and in school, and actualize them in a whole new way. Whether individuals need to strengthen their emunah, gain an attachment to and appreciation for Israel, further their religious commitment or develop skills in learning, spending a gap year in Israel is very worthwhile. Of course, a person can be a strong Jew without spending a year in Israel, but as one recipient of the Kushner Israel fund stated, “Spending the year in Israel is an experience like no other. Being able to learn whatever sparks my interest has allowed me to grow in many ways, challenge beliefs and gain a better understanding of Judaism… My love and appreciation for the Jewish state has grown, and I am more determined than ever to advocate for Israel when I return to the United States to attend college.”
I personally had a transformative experience at Yeshivat Reishit Yerushalayim during my two years there. There is no doubt that I am a different person and a more committed Jew for having attended their program. I know I am not alone. Many people with whom I interact view themselves as a better version of themselves because of the yeshivot and seminaries they have attended.
During the first few years of the fund, we did not have a fundraising event, and didn’t receive the funds that we hoped for. Realizing the extent of the need for funding, we have instituted an annual benefit concert for the fund. Last year’s concert was specifically held for the senior grade and the parents, who have an acute awareness of the financial sacrifice involved in the gap year experience.
To date, the Kushner Israel Fund has raised almost $20,000, helping 11 students make the year in Israel a reality. In response to receiving the scholarship, one student stated, “I am truly blessed that I have people in my life that saw my potential for growth in [my gap year], and supported me through this fund.”
Without specifying names, I am aware of other schools that do offer financial assistance for yeshivot and seminaries; however, I believe those schools, like Kushner, are in the minority. I am fully aware that budgets for schools are extremely tight, and any dollar earned by a donation is much needed for the day-to-day running of the school. However, as educators who care about the needs of our students, many of us recognize that another year of religious growth before college is imperative for solidifying many students’ religious lives, students whose very foundation was formed in our day schools and high schools. My goal is for each Jewish high school or community to establish a fund in order to help facilitate this great need.
The need for an Israel fund is more critical now than ever before. Just last year, Torah Letzion, an organization that existed solely for this cause, closed its doors. Torah Letzion distributed almost 400 scholarships worth over a million dollars over the 10 years the fund existed. What is more, just a few years ago students were able to benefit from the Alisa Flatow Scholarship Fund and from larger MASA grants than those available now. Opportunities now for scholarships are far fewer and the sums are far smaller. With funding from these sources less available, we, the schools and communities, are left picking up the pieces.
May each and every child desiring a year of religious and spiritual growth not be impeded by financial obstacles.
Rabbi David Schlusselberg is a rebbe at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston and the assistant rabbi at Congregation Ahavat Shalom.