Saturday, June 19, 2021

Like many in the non-profit sector, the pandemic threatened to crush the Jewish world. My involvement with the non-profit space spans over 25 years. During my first job out of college, I managed the information technology department of a fundraising organization. Subsequently I have been involved primarily in Jewish education and raising funds to maintain and grow various Jewish educational institutions and projects. A little over a year ago, immediately after Purim, COVID spread fear for personal and communal life. I have never experienced the threat to institution existence as I did then.

In another forum, I outlined many of the complications that gap-year programs faced in bringing students to Israel. I also discussed the Herculean efforts to ensure student safety while at the same time offering as broad an Israel experience as possible. Many in Israel asked that we not welcome students from outside the country, especially those originating from virus hotspots. Almost every program battled quarantines, lockdowns and illness. Those impacted directly by the virus demonstrated institutional resilience and excellent care for their students. My institution, Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, remained one of the few programs to remain COVID-free over the entire year. Reaching the end of the academic year for Northern Hemisphere students, almost all return home having received two vaccine doses here in Israel.

The Jewish community cannot underestimate the impact of various donors and donations on the gap-year programs’ ability to open and continue operation.

Like many academic institutions, over the years we have developed a general fundraising calendar. Around the High Holidays, in December, and approaching Purim, we run minor appeals for programs. Our major push comes every May or June. We run an intense learning program aimed at students worldwide. Our students plan to attend college after spending one to two years of immersion in Jewish texts and Israeli society. Since we cater to students from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres, Yeshiva Eretz HaTzvi functions around two academic calendars: September to June and February to December. The spread of the virus forced us to shut down our in-person operation before Passover in 2020. We closed our doors to students, and due to loss of outstanding income, we placed our faculty on leave. Some students remained in Israel while the Israeli government locked down the country. Most of our students returned home. The yeshiva administration pivoted to offer a robust online program taught by faculty volunteers.

Like many similar programs, however, we confronted a terrible catch-22. Could we fundraise in the summer as usual if opening in the fall was now in doubt? Even if the Israeli Ministry of Health (MOH) permitted our students to arrive, we would not have the resources to open without our annual summer fundraising campaign.

We proceeded with a delayed but exciting online crowdfunding event. Alumni, their parents, and a host of other supporters pitched in, making the event a major success. Additional stimulus came from some of our major gift donors in the form of matching and challenge grants. Around the same time, Mizrachi organized a similar campaign bringing together numerous gap-year yeshiva and seminary programs. Reaching across the Orthodox factional divide made the Mizrachi efforts unique. Charedi, centrist, and Modern Orthodox programs worked together in a joint effort. 

At this time, an unexpected group reached out. A coalition of eight foundations created the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF), pooling their resources. Their goal was to prevent the collapse of many American Jewish institutions. Recognizing gap-year programs’ critical factor in the American Jewish scene, JCRIF approached several educational and experiential institutions in Israel. Those grants partially focused funding on scholarships with the intended purpose of enabling students to come to Israel.

The boost the gap-year programs received from the various funding outlets made all the difference. By August we felt we could open in-person classes and meet MOH guidelines. Bringing students into Israel remained a hurdle; however, several agencies worked tirelessly to convince the government that the investment was worth the risk.

Here we see the impact far beyond the finances of giving. That Mizrachi and those who joined their efforts could raise millions of dollars far beyond the original goal informs us how important the Jewish community sees the gap-year programs. The faith shown by donors speaks far beyond the dollar amounts, especially regarding JCRIF.  

Throughout the summer months I spoke with many friends and colleagues in the gap-year space. Parents contacted continuously, asking if we would open. American rabbis even called, begging us to ensure that we open in the fall. Since the final months of senior year and most summer camp experiences were curtailed, the year in Israel represented a ray of hope. Yet, we did not know if we could open and keep our students and faculty safe. 

By late August, several issues became evident. Despite claims earlier in the summer, many, if not most, colleges in the United States announced that they could not hold in-person classes. In some cases, students would be allowed to reside in the dormitories while watching courses over Zoom. In others, dormitories would remain closed. Tuition generally stayed the same no matter how instructors taught their courses. The question remained if we could pull off our programs.

The morale boost by masses of donors pushed us in ways that I find hard to express. There is no better term than “faith.” Donors had faith that the gap-year programs were essential to the continuity of American Judaism. Donors had faith that we, here in Israel, could find the emotional and spiritual resources to pull it off. Donors seem to say to us that they trusted that we could do it. While the actual funding played a crucial role, the confidence shown to the various programs gave us the emotional support to open.

Our programs required a new vision. We hired medical and mental health staff. We capitalized on expensive venues to meet MOH quarantine requirements. We built plastic booths and trained ourselves to utilize the best hygiene practices. We reorganized, realizing that many of the classic touring activities and free time would have to be changed. Teachers and administrators have never worked harder. And the confidence demonstrated by donors enabled us to do so.   

In June or July I thought that the Jewish community was about to fall off a cliff. The crushing blow caused by the numerous pandemic-induced factors never materialized. We opened for in-person classes and maximum personal engagement. We added medical and mental health professionals to our faculty. And we pulled off one of the best years from an educational view that I remember. Our success is due in no small measure to the vision of small and large donors. The faith they showed empowered the gap-year programs to run an excellent program. The Jewish community will feel the impact of the vision of these donors for years to come.

Rabbi Todd Berman is the director of Institutional Advancement at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi.

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