The number of British participants on gap year schemes in Israel has dramatically dived as 18-year-olds try to beat the rise in university tuition fees.
According to the UJIA, just 57 people have signed up to go out to Israel on gap programmes this autumn, compared with 162 last year.
The number going to yeshivah or seminary in Israel also looks set to drop, currently standing at an estimated 130, compared with 183 last year.
Gap years ahave traditionally been viewed as a recruiting ground for future Jewish community activists as well as helping to encourage aliyah.
But many sixthformers have chosen not to defer their university place from this autumn until 2012, when fees will rise from £3,000 a year to up to £9,000.
‘We depend on gap years to provide our leaders’
Once living expenses are taken into account, students could face the prospect of £50,000 debts after university – and are reluctant to spend £9,500 to £15,000 on an Israel gap year.
Francesca Woolfe, general secretary of FZY, which runs courses in Israel, said: "It's going to have a serious impact. We depend on gap year participants to come back and become leaders of summer camps and to become leaders of the Jewish community. It's a massive worry for us."
But she hoped that the downturn would turn out to be a "blip" over the next year or two.
"We have seen fees go up before and numbers decline that same year, but then go up."
The UJIA believes there may still be a late surge of gap year applicants from students unable to secure a university place. But it is also offering alternatives, including a five-month pre-university "Israel Journey," and a month-long Israel programme for first-year students.
It also promotes the Masa scheme available to 18 to 29-year-olds which includes study, volunteering and work experience of at least five months in Israel including internships with the Israeli government.
Shelley Marsh, UJIA director of informal education, said that it remained "fully committed to maintaining its substantial support to the Jewish youth movements and Israel Experience programmes, despite the current economic climate. These programmes are at the core of our work connecting young people to their Jewish identity, with Israel at its heart."
FZY is introducing a new 7–10 day subsidised Israel trip for first-year students, which will cost them only £499. But Ms Woolfe said the movement still believed strongly in the value of gap years.
"The community needs to make gap years much more of a priority," she said. "You can't put a price on the skills you get from spending a year living in Israel."