The On Year
Photo: Courtesy Yonah Davis
“It’s definitely not a year off,” Director Yossi Garr says of the Nativ program. “It absolutely is a year ‘on’ in the form of learning responsibility for oneself, and others.”

Nativ brings learning, Israeli culture and service together between high school and college

By Deb Silverthorn

Nativ, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s college leadership program, is anything but a gap in the life experiences of its participants. The nine-month program for North American Jewish high school graduates allows them to live, learn and explore Israel, immersing themselves in the land and the people — the soul of their heritage.
“Nativ is not instead of college, but a preface to helping build more grounded and mature students, ready to take on the gift of college,” said Nativ Director Yossi Garr. “It’s definitely not a year off, but absolutely a year ‘on’ in the form of learning responsibility for oneself and others.”
The program, now in its 40th year, combines classroom learning with immersive experiences. Garr is proud of the fact that students can earn as many as 21 college credits at the Conservative Yeshiva, Hebrew University or a Hebrew language intensive with community service.
In between semesters, students have three weeks to choose from being a part of an archaeological dig, working with local farmers or traveling to India or Poland for volunteer experiences.
“I didn’t know many people at first but the people I met, with whom I share my love for Jewish everything, will always be in my life,” said Alisa Rubinstein of Plano, who worked with students in Mumbai and Tiberias, Israel. “It was the perfect combination of freedom and structure.”
Alisa’s mother, Dafna Rubinstein, offers assurance to parents that the program was meaningful, nurturing and safe.
“Nativ’s team was caring and responsible while providing tools the kids will use throughout their lifetimes,” she said. “Nativ gave Alisa academic tools but also life skills and that, in the turnaround of coronavirus, meant being prepared. I would trust them again in a minute.”
The program also reinforced the Jewish experiences Alisa had growing up at Levine and Akiba Yavneh academies, at Anshai Torah and at Camp Ramah Darom, said Dafna Rubinstein, “cementing her Jewish values and strengthening her identity.” She will attend University of Michigan in the Fall.

Nativ has spent the months since the coronavirus began to plan for safe continuation of the program.
“If [the second wave] happens, we’re prepared and we won’t be surprised,” said Garr, who is working with Israeli ministries of health and education. “We’ve now written the manual of how to manage if we have to go online, if anyone is infected … no matter the ‘if,’ we’re ready without compromising the experience.”
In the spring, students share in service-oriented opportunities while living and working with at-risk and immigrant youth at Mount Carmel’s Yemin Orde Youth Village or in the Negev development of Yeruham.
Nativ seminars provide core values of Conservative Judaism, as well as learning about Israeli politics, culture, the environment and high-tech industry. They hike and camp across the country. Nativ’s Yozma program, with trained staff members, invites those with cognitive and social challenges to participate.
Jacquie Mitzner, of Allen, a junior at the University of Vermont, attended Nativ in 2017-2018 and described it as unforgettable. “I learned about Israel and about being Jewish and I also learned a lot about me. It was a great balance of support, freedom and making forever friendships.”
Congregation Anshai Torah’s Rabbi Michael Kushnick was a Nativ counselor in 2006. His wife, Talia, was a 2000 participant. They were introduced to each other by a mutual friend who knew they’d both been in the program.
“Nativ builds Jewish professionals or community lay leaders,” said Rabbi Kushnick. “Jewish pride literally oozes as leadership skills are honed in the most supporting and loving environment.”
Talia, director of admissions at Akiba Yavneh Academy, says while her Jewish ties were tight before Nativ, those nine months were unique.
“I gained so much respect for the passion of Jewish life and learning,” said Talia. “I’ve always loved being Jewish but a year belting out songs, davening together, and losing myself in the expression of Judaism is a treasure.”
Tia Einhorn, Ethan Fine, Tami Govrin and Gabby Ohayon are among next year’s Nativers.
Fine, a Plano West graduate, recently deferred his start at Indiana University. “Indiana’s dorms, classes and dining halls are being recofigured and, while it’ll work out, it isn’t going to be what was expected,” he said. “IU will still be here in a year and I’m so excited for the opportunity for Nativ.”
Einhorn, Govrin and Ohayon, 2020 Akiba Yavneh Academy graduates, were already planning on Nativ before the coronavirus pandemic.
“I researched lots of programs and Nativ was my choice early on,” said Ohayon, who will attend Rutgers University in 2021. “I’ve grown up at Camp Chai and I want to be a camp director someday. Nativ feels like an extended college kids’ ‘camp’ with learning, volunteering and travel.”
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