Building Stronger Jewish Identities in Israel

Students Connect to Torah and Homeland on July in Jerusalem Program

For decades, a post-high school year of Torah study in Israel has played a crucial role in shaping young observant Jews’ future spiritual identities and connection to Judaism. But not all have the opportunity to enroll in a seminary or yeshiva before they begin their college studies.

Students pick tomatoes for Leket's Table to Table program, which are used to create meals for the needy.
Students pick tomatoes for Leket’s Table to Table program, which are used to create meals for the needy.

Now in its tenth year, Yeshiva University’s July in Jerusalem Program provides a unique opportunity for Jewish students from any college or university to immerse themselves in a month of learning, traveling and giving back to the land of Israel.

“It’s a condensed yeshiva or seminary experience, capturing that bubble of spiritual growth where you don’t have to worry about grades or tests and can just focus on your connection to your Judaism,” said Shoshana Schechter, the program’s director. “Many of our students haven’t been raised in the yeshiva system and have never had the chance to do this before. We give them the opportunity to take ownership of their relationship to Torah and provide them with the spiritual and historical context to appreciate what they’re taking in about the Land of Israel that’s all around them.”

For each morning of the four-week program, students came together to study such topics as the relationship between the Jewish nation and the Land of Israel in the Bible; the psychology behind mitzvot; Jewish philosophy; Talmud; and prayer. They spent the afternoons volunteering at organizations such as a treatment center for elderly dementia patients, soup kitchens and Hatzalah. In the evenings, the students explored the Land, kayaking down the Jordan River, walking through the ruins of ancient synagogues and dancing at the Kotel on Friday night.

Many students also shared in chavruta [partnership] learning with other YU students who are in Israel right now participating in the YU-Bar Ilan University Summer Research Initiative, which gives undergraduates the opportunity to study in the labs of top Israeli scientists. At the end of the July in Jerusalem program, each pair of chavrutas presented what they had learned together at a siyum [celebration of completion]; many will continue to learn together when they return to YU’s New York campuses in the fall.

“I wanted to be part of July in Jerusalem because it stood out as something different,” said Raquel Erdos of Brooklyn, New York, who is studying biology at Stern College for Women. “It wasn’t just a trip to Israel to hike a lot and see the country, but it was also a chance to connect to so much more. We got to learn during classes almost every morning and evening, and we constantly had faculty like Rabbi Uri Orlian and Dr. Yitzchak Schechter there for any questions we may have had, as well as Mrs. Nava Orlian and Mrs. Shoshana Schechter.”

Erdos found a volunteer trip to care for olive trees in a forest especially meaningful. “It wasn’t just about helping the trees itself – as important as that was as well – it was about doing our part to help on the land we received and growing a closer connection to Hashem,” she said. “As hot as that day may have been, we all did it with a smile as we bonded with God and with each other as a group.”

“The highlight of my experience were all the times when I got to speak outside of class with the rabbis and all teachers and administrators to learn and hear advice about their own lives,” said Laura Lachman of Baranquilla, Colombia, who graduated this spring with a degree in accounting from Sy Syms School of Business.

Ariella Kohansieh of Great Neck, New York, wanted to attend July in Jerusalem because she had never had the opportunity to study for a year in seminary in Israel. “The faculty were incredible—they not only taught us Torah with sincere passion, but taught us how to live a sincere Jewish life by example,” she said. “The learning, volunteering and touring were amazing. I learned so much about Israel and my own Judaism.”

July in Jerusalem is made possible with the generous support of Mary and Gerald a”h Swartz.