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An unexpected journey

Chicago high school grads choose Israel gap years over virtual college

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Young Judea Year Course participants arrive in Israel as part of a Masa Israel Journey trip.

"I never imagined that I would take a gap year," said two Chicago high school graduates who faced a difficult decision when the pandemic struck.

Hannah Frazer and Elai Spector are among thousands who are choosing to spend the next semester or year in Israel and defer their college admissions.

Programs from Masa Israel Journey, a leading provider of Israel experiences for young adults, have seen a 30% increase in registration in North America, according to Rachel Moses, Director of Gap Year Recruitment.

"I've never seen enrollment that high" in Masa's two most popular gap year programs this year, the Young Judea Year Course and Aardvark Israel, Moses said. These programs offer well-rounded experiences, including trips around Israel, study in a variety of subjects, work, and volunteering.

Although Israel's borders are currently closed to travelers, Masa program participants are allowed in under a special visa program. During their time in Israel, participants get as full an experience as possible while maintaining social distancing guidelines, and each trip has changed its itinerary to work around a two-week quarantine.

Frazer is looking forward to the real-life experience she would have missed at Harvard University. When she heard that her campus would only be allowing freshmen and all classes would be online, she started exploring options until a friend introduced her to Aardvark. She is looking forward to studying Hebrew, exploring Tel Aviv's museums and night life, and working at an internship.

She is also excited about the opportunity to meet participants from around the world and connect with them through her nonprofit, Question Connection, a card game that helps people form interpersonal relationships.

"I'm really excited about bringing that to Israel," she said. "With school buildings being shut down, I felt like me and my peers had a lot of trouble staying connected and quarantine was so isolating." This was part of what made e-learning "very difficult for me as a senior," she said, and she looks forward to building connections in real life.

Like Frazer, Spector was not keen on taking online courses during his freshman year of college. Instead of matriculating at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, he chose to go to Israel on a Masa Young Judea year course program. During his stay, he will reside in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where he will take classes about Israel, learn Hebrew, and work at an internship.

"I chose to do the gap year so I could have four normal years of college," he said. "If things go back to normal in fall 2021, which hopefully they will, I'll be able to have four years of the full in-person college experience."

As more universities switch to virtual classes, Moses is hearing from more and more people with similar mindsets. "We're still getting a lot of people interested in programs, including ones starting this week!" she enthused, noting that while some programs are full, others are available, including second-semester trips.

For additional information or to be connected to a Masa Israel program, reach out to Alissa Gaon at

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