As war continues, exchange and gap year programs work to keep participants safe

What had looked to be an uneventful academic year for international students has turned into a whirlwind of evacuations, head counts, and open-ended delays

Masa Israel fellows commemorate Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day, in a ceremony at Latrun on April 25, 2023. (Courtesy of Masa Israel Journey)
Masa Israel fellows commemorate Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day, in a ceremony at Latrun on April 25, 2023. (Courtesy of Masa Israel Journey)

Gap year and exchange programs for international students in Israel are facing a dilemma as they try to keep their participants safe amid Israel’s ongoing war.

On Saturday, Hamas terrorists broke through the Gaza-Israel border fence and killed over 900 people, injured over 2,600, and are believed to have kidnapped more than 100 people to Gaza in what was the deadliest day for Israeli civilians in the country’s history.

The United States has confirmed that at least 11 of its citizens have been killed, with more unaccounted for and feared captured.

In light of this unprecedented attack, foreign exchange programs, gap years and internships are now scrambling to keep their participants out of harm’s way.

While many Israeli gap year programs are set on continuing for participants, university exchange programs are up in the air due to the risk-averse approach home universities are taking for their students.

American universities running exchange programs in Israel have been in contact with the State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), as well as private security companies, to evacuate students from the country if need be.

Nava Goldstein, a University of Maryland student who plans to study at Tel Aviv University for the next year, arrived in Israel early for the university’s summer ulpan (immersive Hebrew language) program, settling into her dorm on campus. She returned to the United States to see family over the holidays, but is now unable to return to Israel, where she left most of her personal items.

“I’m a bit lost, in the middle of two different locations. I picked my classes, I feel like I very much have been a student for a month. I have no choice but to come back,” she said. “I have a lot of clothes, silverware, school supplies and books just sitting in a dorm.”

Most gap-year participants who haven’t ventured abroad over the holidays are staying in the country as their programs find them a place to stay.

A spokesperson for Masa Israel Journey, an organization that sets up gap year, internship and education programs in Israel, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Sunday that all of its participants had been relocated away from areas “under direct danger.”

“We are continuously monitoring the situation and remain prepared to evacuate more fellows if necessary,” said their spokesperson Tal Bar-on Morali to The Times of Israel. “At Masa, we are unequivocally committed to being present and available to our 5,700 fellows in Israel during this emotionally challenging period.”

Masa Israel fellow on Bnei Akiva gap packing food and supplies for soldiers as part of their volunteer work with the program on Monday, October 9, 2023. (Courtesy of Masa Israel Journey)

The organization has evacuated its programs in the south of the country, including gap years and kibbutz volunteering in the coastal city of Ashdod, and is following Israeli security protocol regarding whether other programs will need to be moved.

Although a small number of fellows have chosen to leave the country for the time being, none of Masa’s programs have been canceled or closed.

The Upper Galilee Leadership Institute, Israel’s largest non-religious mechina — or educational institution focusing on civic responsibility and pre-military training — runs gap year and seasonal programs for Israeli and foreign young adults. The school is not unfamiliar with times of need, said organization vice president Eviatar Baksis.

“For many years we’ve been bringing international participants. The first thing we do is obviously contact their families, give them constant information. Some of them have family in Israel so they have a place to go, but some of them don’t, so we offer them hospitality, whether it’s in the kibbutzim or with a friend,” Baksis said.

On Sunday, the program evacuated its participants at Kibbutz Bar’am near Israel’s border with Lebanon after an exchange of fire between Hezbollah and the IDF in the area.

Kivunim, a gap-year program in which Jewish students travel the world using Israel as a base, had been scheduled to fly out its latest class on Monday. The start of its program has now been delayed to October 22, and participants will travel to Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece first, its director told parents in a letter over the weekend. Some of Kivunim’s 36 student participants had traveled early to Israel or live there now, and the program has confirmed that they are safe.

“The security and safety of our students and staff are and always will be our first priority,” Kivunim’s leadership wrote in the email. Executive director Elie Lauter told JTA the group now intends to bring students to Israel in November, but will rethink the schedule “if arriving in Israel is not yet appropriate.”

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