AMHSI celebrates 40th anniversary, 22,000 alumni and three campuses around the country
by Sarah Vanunu
Today, a growing number of Jewish students at top universities around the world are becoming alienated from Israel and many are being turned into anti-Israel activists who join the Israel delegitimization campaign. Are these young Jews the future of the Jewish community, its future leaders, and the ones who will determine attitudes towards Israel?
Overwhelmingly supportive research shows that the most acute period for critical identity formation in youth takes place during the high school-age teen years. There is a growing political reality in Israel that connection with Jewish Diaspora high schoolers, before they enter college, is essential. This reality has been brought to the surface by the hard work of Lapid – the Coalition of High School Age Programs in Israel, and others.
The Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI), a founding member of the Lapid coalition, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Since its founding, the program has enabled 22,000 high school students from around the world, including the US, Canada, Australia and Europe, to explore the Jewish state and their connection to it through a unique academic experience.
The school has come a long way, with many new and exciting developments marking this year’s important milestone. Fueled by the escalating popularity of the program, with enrollment continuing to increase, AMHSI is expanding its vision and is currently in the early stages of building its third campus in Jerusalem at the beautiful Israel Goldstein Youth Village.
This year, which will see 1,200 students visit Israel through AMHSI, also marks the opening of the new dormitory at the school’s second campus, built with support from the Jewish National Fund and located at the award winning, environmentally-friendly Eshel Hanassi Youth Village in the Negev, 10 minutes from Beersheba.
Just another Israel program? … Not quite.
So what is it that marks the Alexander Muss High School in Israel as a cut above the rest? For starters, in addition to their unique 8-week semester offered year round, their 6-week summer semester, as well as various custom-built day school and community group trips, AMHSI offers a new full Semester program beginning this Fall. The semester program will take place at the Negev Campus. All semester students will travel to Poland to study about the Holocaust, spend a week in the Israeli army, and do a Yam-Le-Yam (Sea-to-Sea) hike across the country. Students will also be offered a Hebrew language component and more opportunities to interact with Israeli high school students. But that’s not all.
AMHSI is the only pluralistic, academic program that is also a fully accredited institution allowing American students to continue in their home school subjects while abroad (in addition to earning college credits). This past year, AMHSI and the University of Miami entered into an agreement whereby teens who attend AMHSI and complete the Core Program (learning about the history of Israel and its people), can apply for six college credits through the UM.
AMHSI, the main campus of which is located at Mosenson Youth Village in Hod Hasharon, boasts many high profile and noteworthy alumni, including Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO), Wayne Firestone (President of Hillel: Foundation for Jewish Campus Life), Noam Neusner and Scott Arogeti (both past liaisons to the American Jewish Community for President George W. Bush’s administration), Matisyahu (reggae pop singer), and Lauren Weisberger (best-selling author of The Devil Wears Prada).
Aside from these better known names, 95% of alumni recently surveyed rated the AMHSI program as one of the most influential experiences of their lives. Others credit their successes in their college and professional careers to the independence and leadership skills they gained while at AMHSI. 88% of AMHSI alumni have married a Jewish spouse.
The question then begs to be asked: If every AMHSI student returns home from his Israel experience with a profound connection to the land of Israel and understands its importance in the history and the future of the world in which we live, why does the State of Israel not invest in more programs like these in order to safeguard the future of the Jewish people? Particularly in today’s environment, why does the government of Israel spend so much money and energy supporting college age programs exclusively?
The government of Israel has not invested in AMHSI, despite its significant accomplishments and benefits to the State and the Jewish people. And yet, at the same time, the government wants to increase the number of young adults visiting Israel on college age programs through Masa and Taglit-Birthright, viewing this as vital to Israel’s long term national security, and completely sidelining the 12,000 high schoolers who come to Israel every year through the Coalition of Lapid high school age programs. Prime Minister Netanyahu has increased his government’s funding of Taglit-Birthright to $100 million over three years. This year, the Jewish Agency will invest $6 million to Birthright. Masa (long-term programs of up to a year in length) has received $24 million in support this year from the Government of Israel, as well as an additional $24 million from the Jewish Agency.
“Every child should have an Israel experience, ideally multiple experiences, as part of their Jewish educational continuum.”
This was one of the summary recommendations of an independent report carried out by the iCenter earlier this year, which advocates increasing the number of participants on high school age Israel programs from 10,000 a year to 20,000. (See: “A New Look at Israel Education: Mapping the Field and Charting the Future”).
The iCenter’s report leads us to ask – HOW? How can we make sure that the number of high school age teen participants on Israel programs will be significantly increased? This realistic goal (already previously achieved in the year 2000, before Birthright and before MASA existed) is foreseeable in the very near future. Yet that can happen only through effective and collaborative partnerships. Ideally, this would involve the crucial institutional support and backing of all the individuals and groups involved in the enterprise, from the government of Israel to local Hebrew and day schools.
AMHSI has recently collaborated with March of the Living to create a joint program for 2013 for certain participating states from the US. This collaborative initiative will enable hundreds, if not thousands, of high school juniors and seniors to participate in both the March of the Living and AMHSI during one eight-week session without having to choose one over the other, and at a cost that would be considerably less than doing both programs separately. Participants will be given the unique opportunity to gain an even deeper connection to Israel and their Jewish heritage, and a richer understanding of the Holocaust.
Indeed, if the goal of the Israeli Government’s and Jewish Agency’s investment in programs to bring Diaspora Jewish youth to Israel is to develop a relationship between Israel and young Diaspora Jewry, it needs to start at a younger, more effective age. In order to connect teens and young adults to their identity, heritage, and affinity with the land, culture, and people of Israel, before they enter college, then that relationship needs to be cultivated and nurtured over a period of time.
The fact that college age students don’t know what to do when confronted with anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses is a huge pressure point for Israel funding and philanthropist-based funding of high school-age Israel programs.
One can only imagine where the high school age programs would be today if they’d received even half the support that the college age programs receive. After 40 years however, it is safe to say that programs like the Alexander Muss High School in Israel are still flourishing and standing strong, committed more firmly than ever to building bridges between Jews and Israel through education, experiences, and understanding, thereby ensuring the future of the Jewish people.
Sarah Vanunu is Executive Assistant to the CEO at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel and Director of Communications for Lapid – The Coalition for High School Age Programs in Israel.