For Rayut Berkowitz, the decision to leave her native Pikesville for a nine-month stint in Israel didn’t spur any creeping doubts, even as she boarded the Tel Aviv-bound plane on Monday.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do since the end of middle school,” she said. “I have a feeling that this will be a year of growth for me.”
Exactly five years later, she is following in her sister’s footsteps, journeying to Israel on the Nativ College Leadership Program. Berkowitz is just one of 86 students from across the nation to participate in the 37-year-old program, where she’ll study at Hebrew University in the fall before moving down south to volunteer in Yerucham.
A recent graduate of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, the 18-year-old maintained a high level of Jewish involvement from a young age, attending Capital Camps for eight consecutive summers and participating in HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir for the last five years.
The staunch Israel advocate was also heavily involved in community events outside of the Jewish realm. Berkowitz, who is a Zumba-certified instructor, created a service program at a local shelter and taught Zumba at the facility for two years before spearheading classes for inner city youth and mental health patients.
In late May, Berkowitz will venture back to the states to begin the next chapter of her life at the University of Michigan. The soon-to-be Wolverine is fixed on obtaining a bachelor’s degree in athletic training from the School of Kinesiology.
How did your Jewish background influence your decision to do a gap year?
I come from a very Zionistic household. My family and teachers have continuously motivated me to go to Israel. During my senior year, I learned from Israeli shluchim who encouraged me as well. The way they taught Israel to me was different than I had ever learned about Israel before, and that really stuck with me. I always knew I would take a gap year, but I grew even more confident when I interacted with the shluchim and interned for StandWithUs during my last year at Beth Tfiloh.
Why choose Nativ?
I know this is the right program for me. Nativ is heavily dedicated to service. That’s something I love. And I enjoy academic settings, so I knew the Hebrew University component would be a good fit for me. Also, there’s no possible way to fit all that Israel has to offer within the course of a few weeks or even a few months. I want to be able to experience Israel to the fullest, and this is one of the only opportunities in my life where I’ll be able to do that. My past trips to Israel made a lasting impact on me, but they were short. I have more of an appreciation for Israel now that I’m older. I think I’m ready to be in Israel for an extended period of time. Truthfully, this experience could very well change the course of what I want to do with my life.
What are you looking forward to during your year abroad?
I’m excited to meet new people who are equally as passionate about Israel. I know I’m going to make friendships that will last a lifetime. Also, I’ve always wanted to volunteer in Israel, and now I have the chance to do so for an extended period of time. I have a bucket list of things I want to do in Israel, and I’m more than ready to start exploring. Even though my friends will almost be sophomores in college when I come back to the states, I’m not nervous. I know that I’m going to have a newfound sense of maturity and an incredible experience that will always stay with me.