For American Jews, the year abroad in Israel has become an rite of passage into adulthood, giving newly minted high school graduates an important period of study and immersion in Jewish identity. It's the time before they plunge headlong into university, when they can connect with their Jewish heritage, mingle with Israelis and return matured, with broadened horizons, and their Jewishness reaffirmed.
In recent years, however, many families have struggled financially with the burden of supporting their children through both a year abroad and four or five years of college. College tuition is up, wages are down and growing numbers of parents feel the pinch of paying for the "extra" year abroad. This dilemma forces many to make the difficult choice between skipping over the year of study in Israel or leaving their children to struggle to pay their way through the last year or two of college on their own.
"You shouldn't have to chose -- and you don't need to"
Today, an Israeli start-up is offering American parents an alternative. Lirom Global Education, the brainchild of Israeli educator Shlomo Lifshitz, has set its sights on the gap year conundrum. "You shouldn't have to choose between giving your kids that special experience in Israel, where they can encounter the world on their own and connect to their Jewish heritage as adults for the first time on the one hand, and making sure they can finish college on the other. You shouldn't have to choose and you don't need to."
Lifshitz, 58, is a veteran in Israeli-American educational ventures. As the CEO of Oranim Educational Initiatives for over 25 years, Lifshitz brought more than 100,000 Jewish students to Israel for a variety of programs. Now he's working to revamp and revitalize the traditional year abroad in Israel.
To that end, Lirom is offering academic gap year and semester programs in Israel which combine rigorous academic studies with the full Israel experience in a structured program immersing students in Israeli life and culture. Participants can earn college credits, study Hebrew, tour the country, and meet Israelis up close and personal.
Aside from the traditional role of Jewish identity building and getting a head start on college, Lirom's programs are designed to prepare high school grads not just for college but for adulthood. The gap year and semester programs include "Tikkun Olam" volunteering and also aim at cultural immersion, letting students get perspective on their lives back in America by experiencing a new world - on their own terms.
Such "life experience" has long been highly valued by college admissions boards and employers alike, but as former Yale professor and higher education guru William Deresiewicz explains, it's even more important as a growth experience, letting students discover who they are and get better insight into what they want in life - and in college. "Take time off before you go to college. Take time off to slow down, to give yourself perspective, to break the cycle of incessant achievement, to get away from constant supervision, to see that there's a world outside of school, to develop skills and explore capacities you haven't had a chance to cultivate."
Israel: The Land of Innovation
For parents still sitting on the fence, Lifshitz points out that Lirom has also condensed the gap year into gap semester programs. "We understand that today not everyone can commit to the full year. Part of the Israeli mentality is being gamish - flexible. Flexibility is what allows you to innovate and problem solve."
For the gap year/semester programs, Lirom has teamed up with The College of Management Academic Studies, Israel's largest college. The academic track for gap year/semester students offers fully accredited college credits, with students taking between 10 to 20 credits per semester. That means that at a minimum, students leave the gap year with a year's worth of courses in their transcript. And because the gap programs allow participants to break down semesters into condensed month-long blocs, students can set their own pace academically.
Lirom's approach is unique, but Lifshitz is betting that it's changes will revolutionize the entire concept of the year in Israel. "Today's system is outdated. It doesn't address the needs of the Millennials. And when you have a problem, change must come from somewhere, or the system collapses. We are the ones bringing that change."
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