When Dr. Ronen Hoffman was an undergraduate student at Tel Aviv University (TAU) in the late 1980s, he was sent by the Jewish Agency to the United States (US) to be a counselor at a Jewish summer camp in Atlanta, Georgia. While he found the summer camp experience a powerful one, he realized that something was missing: “I remember that moment when I thought to myself, it’s very nice to take a piece of Israel in my backpack and go to the diaspora and give them a taste of Israel, but why not take young people here to the real place, to Israel?”
It should come as no surprise that Hoffman went on to form the first Jewish-Israeli international summer camp, Camp Kimama, which continues today. “It makes me so proud to think that so many young people, campers, come from all over the world to Israel to spend the summer with Israeli peers, there’s no more powerful living bridge I can think of,” he says.
That same motivation is behind Hoffman’s next venture, too: an academic gap year program focused on leadership for high-achieving Jewish students, called Exploration, Leadership and Innovation (ELI).
A Gap Between Jewish Life and Antisemitism
ELI is a gap year program being offered in English through The Lowy International School at TAU. For Hoffman, the decision to partner with TAU was a no-brainer, as he realized that gap year programs – opportunities for young people between high school and college – could be a critical tool for Jewish youth in the face of rising antisemitism, especially given that those who attend gap year programs are at a really formative age.
While the idea of ELI was conceived before October 7, what has occurred since then has only made Hoffman double down on the urgency of the program. With antisemitism up 337% in the US and 591% in Australia, and with hate incidents especially prominent on campuses, the need for such a program has only skyrocketed. Consider, for instance, that according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), more than 70% of Jewish students on American campuses have recently experienced or witnessed antisemitism.
For Hoffman, encouraging and allowing Jewish students to spend some time in Israel before beginning their college degree could make all the difference.
“It’s possible for students to stay here for a year or at least a semester, to experience and study, to experience Israel in all its richness and multitude of complexities … and, above all, to accomplish an act of Zionist fulfillment,” he says. “And then, when these students return to their respective countries and start their studies, when they do come face-to-face with expressions of hatred and false narratives, no one will have the upper hand on them.”
A Need for Jewish Leadership
And while Hoffman believes all Jewish students should be afforded this opportunity, he is also acutely aware that Israel and the Jewish world desperately need future leaders. And so, for him, it was important that the type of program he put together would focus on fostering leadership – something that Hoffman has been invested in throughout his career.
In his career, the diplomat, entrepreneur and academic has traveled between Israel and Washington for state negotiations, cofounded the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, represented Israel in the Knesset, and built entrepreneurial ties between Israel and Canada as an ambassador. Currently, Hoffman is overseeing a plan to establish a philanthropic fund as part of the Awz group, whose purpose is threefold: to reclaim the resilience of the Jewish people by confronting antisemitism and hate, to create dedicated centers to help Israelis grappling with trauma post-October 7, and to further establish Israel’s brand as a global hub for impactful innovation.
Regarding ELI, Hoffman’s focus from the beginning has been on building the type of program that would allow exceptional Jewish students to gain the confidence and clarity needed to stand out from the crowd. He has built with TAU a rigorous and ambitious program embedded in mentorship and academic excellence.
“It’s about really helping them to prepare themselves for their future, for university life and college life, and also for their role in their own communities,” he says. “We want these students to not only feel confident in their quest to make a difference, but to feel like they have the practical tools to see things through, regardless of whatever adversity they may meet.”
Moreover, running the gap year program with TAU felt like the perfect fit, given the university’s standings as the highest-ranked university in Israel (2024 QS World University Rankings), a top 100 innovation university (Reuters) and the first university outside the US for graduates who have founded unicorn companies (Stanford University). And as Israel’s largest research university – with nine faculties and 125 schools and departments – Hoffman knew he could easily work with TAU to provide a diversity of opportunities and course options.
“I enjoyed my studies at TAU so much, I was really inspired by my lecturers and my teachers to try and get involved in relations between Israel and other nations,” recalls Hoffman. “Pairing up with TAU to provide this really unique gap year program feels in some ways like coming back home.”
The Uniqueness of the Exploration, Leadership and Innovation (ELI) Program
Nothing exists quite like ELI. There are of course other gap year programs, however, most are non-academic and focused on the trip experience. No gap year program proposes to combine rigorous academic training with the networking, leadership and mentorship opportunities ELI offers, along with a deep engagement with Jewish life and peoplehood.
“This is something very unique in that it’s about leadership and academic excellence, about providing gifted students with a toolbox and opportunities that will help them to thrive in their future academic and career endeavors, but it’s also about Jewish peoplehood and grappling with the collective identity of us as a people,” says Hoffman.
The program is for students who aspire to be the next generation of Jewish leaders in academia, diplomacy and entrepreneurship. Entry into the program is selective and based not only on academic performance, but personal initiative. “We’re looking for those students who are already thinking about ways they can make a difference in the world,” Hoffman clarifies.
Through its smaller cohort size, diverse offering of experiential activities and field trips, and individualized mentorship opportunities, the program in some ways aims to recreate the best of the camp experience – especially in the way it encourages deep bonding and significant personal growth.
A Bridge to University and Jewish Life
In other ways, the program is very much an intellectual one – focused on building the critical thinking and practical skills that will allow students to thrive in their future education and career paths.
As part of the program, students choose a combination of for-credit courses across five key areas: Israel & the Middle East, Jewish Peoplehood, Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Environment and Sustainability, and the Best of Science and Human Thought. These courses are taught at an introductory university level by leading TAU faculty, at the same time, the courses combine classroom learning with workshops and immersive trips.
Take, for instance, the course “Contemporary Israel”: students can expect to meet with diverse communities across the country (e.g., Ultra-Orthodox, Druze and Arab-Christian communities), go on tours of the Knesset and the Supreme Court, and embark on a service-learning project.
“There is certainly learning in the classroom, but students get a lot of learning outside the classroom, too,” says Hoffman.
Regarding the leadership component, Hoffman says this will be taught both through the courses, and well as through mentorship and leadership workshops with key figures in fields such as politics, entrepreneurship, culture, media and technology.
And while the program offerings are designed to be diverse, throughout the program Jewish life will be centered. This will happen through courses such as “Jewish History, Identity & Heritage,” through Hebrew classes, through service learning projects (for instance, with the ANU Museum of the Jewish People), as well as through engagement with Israel and Israelis via extracurricular trips and events.
Additionally, given the ELI program is run through The Lowy International School, students will also have access to all the amenities afforded by the international school. These include – including Shabbat dinners, weekly Shiurim and classes, and Orthodox accommodations as needed – as well as general services, such as 24/7 access to the Student Life Team, who are there to help with any questions and who organize a full schedule of social activities.
Interested in ELI?
ELI is welcoming its first cohort in September 2024 and the program is currently accepting applications. While the curriculum is designed for the full academic year, students may opt for a single semester in either the fall or spring.