Teens on rock in Israel
(Pixabay)

Recent high school grads from Metro Detroit are excited to spend a year in Israel, even if their programs will look different from usual.

Jacob Ellenbogen has been planning to take a gap year after high school since his sophomore year, and when he found the Kivunim International Gap Year Program, he knew it was what he wanted to do. In a normal year, students in the program learn about the Jewish diaspora from a home base in Israel, with trips to different countries every few weeks.

Jacob Ellenbogen
Jacob Ellenbogen

But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

“There was about a two-week period where Europe was doing worse than the United States” in terms of controlling a coronavirus outbreak, said Ellenbogen, who recently graduated from Groves High School.

“I was a little ‘I’m not so sure about this.’ And then once the U.S. started doing significantly worse than everyone else in the world during this pandemic, if I can get out of this country … then get me out of this country,” he told the Jewish News.

Ellenbogen is not the only recent high school graduate from Metro Detroit who decided to go forward with a gap year in Israel as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. And while programs will look different this year — Kivunim has postponed all its travel outside of Israel until the spring, with the hopes that a vaccine will then be available — they’re still welcoming American students with open arms.

Olivia Feldman
Olivia Feldman

Those differences will start as soon as students walk off the plane — anyone coming to Israel from another country currently has to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Olivia Feldman, a recent graduate of Frankel Jewish Academy, will participate in a gap year program called Hevruta this year. The program is bringing all American participants to Israel two weeks earlier than normal so quarantine doesn’t cut into their regular programing time, Feldman said.

“When we get off the plane, they separate us into six-people pods,” Feldman said. “And right from there, the people who run the program pick you up, and you go to your apartment and you just don’t leave for 14 days.”

Micah Eizen, who just finished his senior year at Farber Hebrew Day School, is also headed to Israel this fall for a year of learning at a yeshiva. His program will quarantine for two weeks at a hotel in Jerusalem. He said there will be four to six students per hotel room, and he isn’t sure if he’ll be paired with the roommate he’ll live with for the rest of the year.

The possibility of having to quarantine with strangers is “a little nerve wracking,” Eizen said. But “we all chose this yeshiva out of all the other yeshivas that are going, [so] we all have similar personality traits. It can be a good thing.”

While Feldman is excited to move to Israel after being in Metro Detroit all summer, she said she’s starting to feel nervous about traveling across the ocean during a pandemic. She’ll have to wear a mask for the entirety of her 10-hour flight to Israel. Feldman is also bringing her own kitchenware to the apartments in which she’ll quarantine and then live for the rest of the school year.

“It’s scary,” she said. “I don’t want to get sick.”

Micah Eizen
Micah Eizen

Leaving the country during a pandemic also has gap-year participants worried about what might happen to their relatives back home. But Ellenbogen sees the positive side of moving far away right now.

“I’m worried something will happen to my family, but even if I was going to school [in America], there’s still the chance that that could happen. And that risk doesn’t really change. In fact, it’s probably minimized a little bit from the fact that I won’t be interacting with my family at all,” he said.

While Ellenbogen also said he feels safer being in a group of exclusively young people, who are less likely to experience severe symptoms from coronavirus, gap-year programs have to plan for the chance that participants will get sick. Feldman said Hevruta has set aside apartments for isolation units in case anyone catches the virus after the initial 14-day quarantine.

“It’s the only thing you can really do,” she said. And “if it was a real health concern, unfortunately, they would have to be sent home. But hopefully it doesn’t come to that.”

Despite the stressors of moving halfway across the globe right now, Feldman said she’s confident she’ll have a great year in Israel.

“It’s such a unique experience because I’m not going to college right away, and sure, I’m nervous, but I’m just really excited to get a little change of scenery, and just a really wonderful year ahead,” she said.

As Eizen put it, “It feels crazy. And it would have been crazy even without a pandemic.”

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