For Gavri Kepets, the story behind his gap year in Israel with Masa Israel is a quintessential “only in the Jewish community” moment.
Kepets was looking to pursue his passion for computer science and coding, but only in the context of a gap year program that accommodated his religiously observant lifestyle. As it turned out, the best research came from none other than his mother, who spotted an advertisement for the Torah Tech gap-year program at Teaneck’s Chopstix kosher Chinese restaurant and instantly knew it represented the ideal fit for the unique Torah-academic balance that her son was seeking.
While Kepets discovered the program through low-tech, old-school means, his gap year experience is a new-age, high-tech journey. He’s currently interning in Tel Aviv for autofleet, a digital platform for ride-sharing companies which enables them to meet increased customer demand and optimize their services on a regional scale by incorporating new business models and strategies like transitioning to autonomous vehicles.
Three days a week, Kepets has a jam-packed schedule beginning with morning prayers at 7 a.m., followed by Jewish learning, a full workday at his internship site, and concluding by 9 p.m. after an additional round of Torah study. During the other two weekdays, he focuses completely on Jewish studies.
“I get to live in Israel for the year, have a high-level tech job, and keep my other hobbies,” says Kepets, a native of Teaneck who graduated from The Frisch School in Paramus and will attend The Cooper Union in New York this coming fall. “It’s the perfect opportunity to spend a meaningful amount of time in Israel while developing my career.”
Torah Tech is one of the various programs under the umbrella of Masa Israel Journey, the global leader in immersive and long-term experiences in Israel for young Jewish adults ages 18-30 from around the world. Since Masa was formed in 2004 by the shared vision of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, The Jewish Federations of North America, and The Jewish Agency for Israel, more than 130,000 young adults from over 60 countries have taken part in Masa’s wide range of 2-12-month study abroad, internship, service learning, and Jewish studies programs.
Masa says it participants spend their time in Israel “living like a local,” experiencing an authentic, unmediated, and challenging journey into Israeli society and its people, culture, politics, economy, land, and history.
Kepets says being part of a religiously sensitive program in Tel Aviv — not normally known as a religious hub — has changed his perceptions about the city.
“There’s kind of a misconception about the Judaism in Tel Aviv,” he says. “While it might not be as religious of a city as Jerusalem outright, there are tons of shuls and a very strong Jewish community if you know where to look.”
The program has also provided Kepets with role models for balancing Jewish learning with a professional career.
“Most of our teachers are VCs (venture capitalists) or work at tech companies,” he says. “They’re part of the tech world and the start-up world, yet they’re able to learn Torah during their free time. We really get to see that if you work hard, you can pull off that balance. It’s a unique perspective that not many people get to see.”
Joey Yudelson, also a Teaneck native, was looking for a gap year in Israel which was different from the typical yeshiva experiences that his classmates were pursuing. He wanted practical training in computer programming, a field that always interested him but in which he had no formal experience.
Yudelson has gotten that experience in a big way through the Masa-affiliated BIG IDEA gap year, which brings high school graduates to Israel for an immersive high-tech training lasting 5-9 months in Be’er Sheva or Tel Aviv. This includes a four-month app development boot camp and various activities in which participants strive to make social impacts through technology.
A graduate of the SAR Academy in New York, Yudelson spent his first six months of BIG IDEA coding, taking programing classes, and working to develop user experience apps at the Be’er Sheva-based Carasso Science Park, Israel’s largest science and technology museum. Now, he lives in Tel Aviv with two of his fellow Masa participants and has a high-tech internship.
“I feel like I’m not just an intern,” Yudelson says. “I’m doing real work at an exciting tech start-up. It’s the kind of gap year opportunity I wouldn’t have had as a high school graduate in the U.S.”
Indeed, Masa believes that whether its participants are interested in high-tech innovation, community building, art, scientific research, renewable energy, music, language, archaeology, or various other disciplines and careers, the “start-up nation” of Israel is the land of opportunity when it comes to obtaining prestigious internships or volunteer opportunities at cutting-edge companies and influential organizations.
For Kepets, part of the value of that opportunity was the rigorous process of landing the job. First, the Torah Tech program worked with him on cleaning up his resumé. Then, he had four three interviews at autofleet before receiving an offer. The journey was a crucial career development exercise, he says. In the role itself, Kepets is sharpening his developer skills and is responsible for “integration”– connecting autofleet’s services to the platforms of their clients.
But the Masa experience isn’t all work, no play. Kepets enjoys hiking, camping, and conferences across Israel. He praises his “gorgeous apartment” and the program’s “amazing food,” and proudly notes that “we have a smoker on our porch.”
Yudelson, meanwhile, feels the independence his program affords is providing the real-world experience that he wouldn’t have gotten by starting college immediately after high school.
“This year in Israel is giving me more time to figure out what I want to study in college and then pursue professionally,” says Yudelson. “It’s that room to breathe, to develop as a person.”