Young Judea’s Year Course – a nine-month program for recent high school graduates who want to immerse themselves in learning, cultural exchange and service in Israel – is an increasingly popular way for students to spend their “gap year” between graduating high school and starting college. There are numerous program options that allow students to tailor their trip to their interests. And then there are students like Noah Berman and Sean Macdonald who start their own.

A year prior to starting Year Course, Berman and Macdonald participated in a Young Judea summer program Machon, where they were exposed to many facets of life in Israel, including the community of Sudanese and Darfurian refugees living in Israel. Inspired by the plight of this community, many of whom have faced discrimination and poverty throughout their lives, they and a group of other students decided to create an extra volunteer track for Year Course participants.

The result was Garin Tzedek, a program that engaged more than 50 Year Course volunteers in working with the refugee community. According to Berman, there are approximately 20,000-25,000 African refugees currently living in Israel, of which 35-45% are Sudanese or Darfuri. They primarily live in Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood, Eilat, Be’er Sheva and Arad (where the Year Course participants primarily worked.) During their year, the volunteers taught English to members of the community, helped to set up a health clinic, fundraised and raised awareness across Israel about the community’s needs.

The idea for Garin Tzedek initially sparked debate within the Young Judea leadership. “Some [staff] immediately thought the idea was wonderful, while others thought that Year Course students should specifically focus on helping the Jewish community,” said Director Dan Krakow. “[Garin Tzedek proposed] a wonderful challenge that helped Young Judea clarify its mission.”

Ultimately, Young Judea decided to support the students in their initiative and, in doing so, helped launch a remarkably successful new program. “Almost every year we have individual students suggest projects they want to work on, but this is much bigger,” Krakow said. “The number of students who engaged with it and the extent of work they did is bigger than we’ve seen before.”

Now that their year is over, Berman, Macdonald and other students who were involved with Garin Tzedek are helping to ensure that the program continues for next year’s Year Course participants. The program is currently slated to have a part-time advisor on staff, and the money fundraised will be used to start a computer class in Arad, and expand the service projects begun last year.

To find out more about this incredible initiative: check out Garin Tzedek’s blog Seed the Plow, listen to Berman and MacDonald interviewed on Rusty Mike Radio here and check out a video montage the participants put together below: