When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, many American and British colleges and universities are shutting down and continuing remote learning. But in Israel, it’s a different experience. “We’re geared up,” explains Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, Educational Director at Neve Yerushalayim, a Jewish women’s college with a sprawling campus in the heart of Jerusalem.

Israel instituted early lockdowns and rigorous tracking, testing and quarantining in the fight against Covid-19, and as result they are much more open than many other countries. Israeli schools and universities have already reopened. While there are still many precautions in place, Israeli schools are planning to continue in-person instruction this summer and in the coming school year.

“We have enough space to accommodate any level of lockdown should that become necessary,” says Rabbi Edelstein. Israel is allowing students to enter the country now and then quarantine for two weeks.

At Aish HaTorah, in Jerusalem’s historic Old City, lessons never stopped even during the height of Israel’s strict lockdowns. About 80 students sheltered in place in the school, enjoying Aish HaTorah’s multiple communal areas, vibrant classroom settings, spacious dining hall and gym.

Both Aish HaTorah – for young men – and Neve Yerushalayim – for young women – offer extensive programs for English-speaking students, from beginners to advanced, allowing students taking a gap year or a year off from college (or delaying their entry into grad school or the job market) the chance to explore Jewish studies at their own pace and levels.

Aish HaTorah runs several programs, allowing young men to study Jewish texts, Hebrew language, Jewish philosophy and other subjects for any length of time.

Aish’s Foundations Program is “for students exploring Judaism,” explains Rabbi Nachman Elsant, Assistant Director of the school. This full time program doesn’t expect any background knowledge, just a desire to learn. It’s completely personalized: “Students can spend three weeks here or three months” taking advantage of Aish HaTorah’s world-class faculty and enjoying life in a comfortable dorm in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. Most Foundations students are in their twenties – the program is “perfect” for a college student taking a year or semester long break, though they would also consider taking younger students on a gap year or gap semester before starting university.

The Foundations program comprises three hours of classes in the morning, three in the afternoon, optional programming in the evening and lots of additional social and educational extra-curricular experiences. “The curriculum tries to give a well-rounded exposure to Judaism, including philosophy, personal growth, Jewish history, and Jewish texts,” explains Rabbi Elsant.

There are also numerous trips around Israel and workshops focusing on different aspects of Jewish learning. Students engage in one-on-one learning with teachers, often forging close personal connections. Visit http://aishfoundations.com/ for more information.

For students who have completed the three-month Foundations program and want to continue their Jewish learning, there’s the option of transitioning to the Beit Midrash Program which continues Aish HaTorah’s commitment to individualized learning. The program includes a crash course in Hebrew, as well as classes in Jewish philosophy, prayer, and personal development. There is a big focus on developing skills in Talmud study so students can become independently skilled learners of Jewish texts. “The Beit Midrash program also helps students develop life skills – it helps prepare students for the next stage in life, motivating and empowering students to make a difference in their Jewish communities and college campuses. It gives them tools to answer questions about Judaism, about Israel, and to make a difference wherever they find themselves in their Jewish communities” Rabbi Elsant says. There is also a full time Spanish program. Visit http://yeshiva.aish.com/ for more information about the Beit Midrash program.

For boys just graduating high school, Aish HaTorah also runs a post-high school year long program called Aish Gesher. This program is diverse, with some students coming from years of Jewish day schools, and others studying on a separate track aimed at students with no formal Jewish education. For students graduating from public high schools who want a traditional yeshiva experience, this program offers the chance to spend a year living in the Old City of Jerusalem, studying Jewish texts at a serious level. Visit http://aishgesher.com/ for more information.

For young women, Neve Yerushalayim offers five levels of study, aimed at female students aged 18-33 who wish to explore their Jewish heritage, learn about Jewish philosophy and texts, learn Hebrew, and experience life in Israel.

There are no prerequisites besides a desire to learn. “Anybody can come in; we’ll place them according to their level,” explains Rabbi Edelstein. “We have an open-ended educational system. Whenever someone feels ready to move up to the next level, they can switch to the next track.” This flexibility extends to enrollment dates too: students can begin studying at Neve Yerushalayim whenever they wish, and stay for a length of time that works for them. “You can come for two weeks and stay for six months,” Rabbi Edelstein says.

One of Neve’s strengths is their world-class teachers. Most teachers are women, and many are young. “They are role models, showing students what successful, professional Jewish women can look like.”

Neve students create a largely personalized schedule of classes, catering to their individual needs and interests. As students move up through Neve’s levels, they gradually incorporate more Hebrew and text-based reading into their studies. Another key component of learning at Neve is the use of chavrutot, or study partners: this is a time-honored way of Jewish learning, and at Neve students are paired both with fellow students and also with teachers for a highly personalized, one on one educational experience. Neve also brings in outside speakers for special seminars: experts come to deliver seminars on Jewish holidays or other topics, and the school will arrange festive breakfasts and special mornings to devote to these outside speakers.

Neve students embody a range of religious experiences. “You don’t need to be observant, there’s no dress code,” explains Rabbi Edelstein. “We leave it to the integrity of each student to decide what they want to do with their Judaism.”

Neve Yerushalayim closed during the lockdowns in Israel and is planning to reopen July 7 for their full range of programs. Students come from all over the world – just over half generally are from North America, and the remainder hail from Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Visit https://nevey.org/about/ for more information.