While many of their fellow high school graduates headed off to college, Jared Laxer and Molly Hoffman headed into the desert.
For the past few months, Jared, of North Caldwell, and Molly, from South Orange, lived 15 kilometers from the Dead Sea, in Arad, one of Israel’s first development towns, where many Sudanese refugees are housed.
During the day, Jared worked at a local school, forming relationships with teenagers and younger children, helping them learn English; Molly worked in a day-care center held in a woman’s home. In their free time, they both participated in extra volunteer projects to assist the Sudanese refugees.
Both are participants in Young Judaea’s Year Course in Israel. While a year studying in an Israeli yeshiva has been de rigueur for generations of Orthodox youth, “gap year” programs in Israel have been growing in popularity over the last decade among non-Orthodox Jews; at Young Judaea, according to Dan Deutsch, an Essex County native and now director of Israel programs at Young Judaea, participation peaked in the 2008-09 year, when over 500 young people registered.
This year, more than 300 participants from around the country, including 17 from New Jersey, are in Young Judaea’s year course, which is more than 50 years old. Young Judaea is the youth movement of Hadassah, and is just one of many organizations offering year-long experiences in Israel.
With this year’s program, Young Judaea has introduced Garin Tzedek, a track that helps train Young Judaeans to take on social action projects of their choosing. Each year, students, deciding together, will select a single project or cause.
“We wanted to create a platform in which kids take social action into their own hands,” said Deutsch. “This way, they can pick their own topic to get behind. It helps them learn leadership skills for life, to give back not through an organized framework, but on their own.”
Both Jared and Molly are among the 40 who elected to participate in Garin Tzedek. In its inaugural year, the students chose to work on behalf of Sudanese refugees. In recent years, as many as 6,000 Sudanese — some 2,500 Christians and 3,500 Muslims — have sought refuge in Israel from the repressive Khartoum government. In addition to volunteer work, the Garin Tzedek participants are raising money for the refugees, about $2,500 to date.
Jared, the son of Randy Laxer and Bruce Laxer, has enjoyed getting to know the Sudanese and helping them adjust to Israeli culture. He called the experience “amazing.”
“Knowing how much we are helping is also amazing,” he said. “I know this program has gotten them on their feet.”
He also loved living in Arad. “Some of my friends think Arad is boring because it’s such a small city in the Negev. But I think it’s cool,” he told NJJN in a recent phone interview from Israel. “Wherever you go, you know people. I love that when I go to get shwarma, I know the guy selling it to me.”
At her “day job” in Arad, Molly, the daughter of Sheryl and Marty Hoffman, took care of Sudanese babies and children.
“They all mostly spoke only Arabic, which at first was a huge challenge.
“But by the end of my time with them I found that the language barrier was no problem, and I formed a bond with their community that I will never forget,” she wrote in an e-mail. On the side, she taught English to a woman who was in charge of the refugees. The experience was “extremely rewarding,” she wrote.
After hours, in her Garin Tzedek project, she helped with the construction and renovation of a community center for the Sudanese. (It was a coincidence that her day job also involved working with the Sudanese refugees.)
“I heard the most amazing and profound stories of their experiences in Sudan and their journeys getting to Israel. I learned so much about the genocide there and about their culture,” she wrote.
Students participating in Year Course are divided into three groups that rotate through three different segments — in Jerusalem, Bat Yam, and either Arad or a program offering army training. All participants take classes and a year-long ulpan, or Hebrew-language course, and are assigned to local volunteer jobs. In early December, Molly and Jared said goodbye to Arad and moved to their second rotation in Jerusalem.
“It’s kind of sad that I will probably never make my way back down to the middle-of-nowhere Arad, but I had some really good times and experiences there,” Molly wrote.
Next year, Jared plans to attend Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.; Molly will attend the University of Vermont in Burlington.