Short On Time, Long On Learning


Accrued vacation? Time to spare between jobs? Sabbatical? If you have a gap in your calendar, Israel has lots of options for a quick-turnaround educational experience. Here are popular picks, mostly suitable even for those with just a week or two to commit.

Volunteer and study

There are lots of programs that combine study and volunteering, and one of the most compact options is just finishing its 2018 season and starting to recruit for next year. The Jewish National Fund’s Alternative Winter Break is a week-long community service trip for people in their 20s and 30s. “There’s a trend at the moment towards people wanting to explore countries through volunteering, and this is a program that combines community service with education,” said Eric Narrow, a staffer at the JNF’s Israel office.

Alternative Winter Break appeals to people who have visited Israel before, but stayed mostly on the tourist track. “It’s a way of really understanding that Israel, with all its glitz and glamour, still has areas of need, and people from outside of Israel can help with this,” said Narrow. Education includes lectures and tours. Volunteering placements include work in impoverished neighborhoods, projects for Bedouins, and work with special needs youth.

Beyond JNF’s program there are opportunities for volunteering all year round, and for older age groups. One quick way to find a placement is to get in touch with Skilled Volunteers for Israel (, an organization that sets up volunteers for work for short and long stints.

Learn Hebrew

Hebrew teaching has changed, with the proliferation of private courses. So, if you want to head to Israel to get a grasp of the language, you have a range of options.

The trusty Kibbutz Ulpan is still going strong — a five-month multi-level language program based in kibbutzim around the country. Participants live, study and volunteer on a kibbutz. Lessons mostly take place in classrooms, and are supplemented by guided tours and hikes to historic and scenic sites.

Alongside this traditional course, there are newer institutions like Not An Ulpan, which runs a four-week intensive course — and some other options — in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

It was set up in 2012 by a group of five educator-activists, both Hebrew teachers and Hebrew students, who were frustrated by their own ulpan experiences. Classes are based on conversation and experience, so instead of sitting in rows and learning grammar, students are constantly pushed into real-life encounters in Hebrew, like going to markets. Hailey Mann, who helps run the language school, said that it is defined by a sense of community, which helps people learn. “We learn, grow, eat, drink, laugh and hang out together — this is core to our organization.”

Register for a conference

Walk around Jerusalem or Tel Aviv on any weekday, and you are likely to see people with conference name tags. There are always conferences taking place in Israel, and there is an eclectic mix of them.

Many are professional and trade events, but not all. The two-day International Symposium on the Poetics of Science Fiction is taking place at Tel Aviv University in March. May will see technology enthusiasts descend on Tel Aviv for the two-day Annual Robotics and Automation Conference. It features lectures and displays of the latest innovations and achievements of the industry and in academia. If art or music are more your scene, there are events for you, too.

Naturally, many of the conferences and seminars relate to Israel. The 35th Annual Conference of the Association for Israel Studies will take place in June, looking at changing visions and values in Israeli society, especially those tied to Israel’s rise as a high-tech center.

Birthright — now up to age 32

Until recently, if you reached 27 and hadn’t been on one of Birthright’s free 10-day tours of Israel, you lost the opportunity. Now, Birthright has opened up trips for people aged 27 to 32, and they are attracting single people and couples alike.

Birthright gives participants a whistle stop tour of Israel with American leaders and an accredited Israeli tour guide. The itinerary is a mixture of fun and educational activities, and participants learn about various aspects of Israel, including the culture and its geopolitical challenges.

Learn Jewish texts

You don’t need to book yourself into a formal semester-long course in order to study Jewish texts. There are lots of English-language short-term classes taking place all the time, and you can pick and choose.

This is especially the case in Jerusalem, where there is always a large contingency of English-speakers of various ages, including a large number of retirees, enjoying a holiday or mini-Sabbatical in the city and attending courses and lectures on Jewish topics.

The OU Israel Center is run by the U.S.-based Orthodox Union, which organizes lectures and tours, and the Yakar Center has a lively program that includes philosophy and discussions on contemporary issues. Reform Anglos are attracted to the Reform-run Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, which has an extensive program of lectures, symposia and seminars.

The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem has several short courses for people who are short on time, including the week-long Pardes Executive Learning Seminar, where participants grapple with ancient texts and current issues and visit historical sites. The next seminar starts July 30, and the theme will be Shaping Meaningful Relationships in a Lonely World.

More time on your hands? Check out Masa

If you have several months to spare, check out the website of Masa Israel Journey, an organization that supports and promotes hundreds of Israel-based programs, and helps them reduce costs to participants.

Many programs, including yeshiva and seminary studies and Kibbutz Ulpan, are affiliated with Masa. The website gives information about these, and also serves as a catalogue for many other programs that you wouldn’t otherwise hear about.

Masa is a joint project of the Government of Israel, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod UIA. It was set up in 2004 to encourage young adults to spend five months or more in Israel on a program, and it places an emphasis on familiarization with the local culture.

“There’s no comparison to living like a local, and with Masa you’re living around Israelis, you’re going to the shops, you are learning about the people and the country because,” said Steven Silberman, director of partnerships for Masa, “you’re learning about culture and society and what it’s like to be an Israeli, which is so valuable.”