LEAP participants listening to a tour guide at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
(Photo/Thomas Echevarria)
LEAP participants listening to a tour guide at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. (Photo/Thomas Echevarria)

At Palo Alto JCC, teen group ‘leaps’ between Israel and diaspora

When Eden Rosenblum graduated from high school in Canada in June 2020, she knew exactly what she wanted to do before starting college: take a gap year and travel, likely to Israel. But the world had other ideas.

When the Covid-19 pandemic scuttled plans that summer, she decided to take online classes from home at the University of Alberta.

At the end of her freshman year, she was ready to try again. Looking for a program that would challenge her, she applied to the LEAP Year Program, co-run by the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto and the Tel Aviv–based Bina: The Jewish Movement for Social Change.

LEAP — Learning, Experience, Action and Peoplehood — is a 10-month program in Israel that includes a three-week visit to the Bay Area, and specifically Silicon Valley, and includes educational, social and cultural components in both countries.

“I didn’t want to just go to Israel for 10 months to spend my day at the beach, surrounded by all English speakers,” said Rosenblum. “Even though it was a year away from academia, I wanted to still learn and push myself in other ways.”

LEAP Gap Year participants assembling food bags at Jewish Family & Children's Services in Palo Alto. (Photo/Thomas Echevarria)
LEAP Gap Year participants assembling food bags at Jewish Family & Children’s Services in Palo Alto. (Photo/Thomas Echevarria)

LEAP Year brings Israeli and diaspora Jewish teens together for “learning, volunteering and exploring Jewish life and Jewish peoplehood,” according to Tova Birnbaum, director of Jewish content at the OFJCC. This year, the program had 10 Israelis and 10 participants from outside Israel, mostly from the U.S.

The whole group spends eight months in Tel Aviv before heading to the Bay Area and then returning to Israel for their final month.

During the past two weeks, the LEAP cohort that includes Rosenblum has explored life in and around the Bay Area, making both Jewish and non-Jewish stops. The participants visited Jewish Family and Children’s Services and Urban Adamah, Glide Memorial Church and the Delancey Street Foundation, among other community organizations. The purpose, Birnbaum said, is to expose the students to as many kinds of social service programs as possible and expand their worldviews.

“We are so passionate about not only educating them but also inviting them to experience and be part of the process of how Jewish life forms itself,” Birnbaum said.

While in Tel Aviv, the students worked with Bina to study traditional Jewish texts and philosophies, and engaged in social work in the region. Elliot Glassenberg, senior educator at Bina, said the goal is for participants to experience both the beauty and the hardships of community work.

LEAP participants with OFJCC CEO Zack Bodner(Photo/Thomas Echevarria)
LEAP participants with OFJCC CEO Zack Bodner
(Photo/Thomas Echevarria)

“We like to give our participants a choice of where they spend their time volunteering,” Glassenberg said. “It allows them not only to get to know the communities, but also put these ideas of their learning into practice.”

Now in its second year, the idea for LEAP came from Zack Bodner, OFJCC’s president and CEO. He wanted to create an opportunity to strengthen the connection between Israelis and diaspora Jews. Bringing teens from both communities together in Israel and the U.S., the two groups might understand each other better, he said.

In the communities as a whole, “there’s friction in that relationship,” Bodner said. “We thought that if we could build this model of people-to-people relations, and people-to-place relations, it would reset the relationship for the next 10, 20 years.”

In a little over a month, Rosenblum will return to Canada and, in the fall, to the University of Alberta, this time in person. She said LEAP opened her eyes to the breadth of Jewish life, while pushing her out of her comfort zone. One of the most memorable parts of the program for her was working in Israeli schools with underprivileged children.

“I’m volunteering two, three times a week at … schools with children that come from migrant families, or refugees or asylum seekers, who really, really need the help, and the government hasn’t given them the infrastructure,” Rosenblum said. “That’s been the most meaningful thing for me.”

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene is a J. Staff Writer. Originally from Vermont, she has a BA in political science and an MA in journalism from Boston University. Follow her on Twitter at @lilsleygreene.