A Life-Changing Experience for Teenagers in Israel
by Darryl Egnal
The last year of California teenager, Aviv Gadi’s schooling has literally changed her life. After spending her primary school years at a Jewish day school and first few years of high school at a public school in Los Angeles, she was offered an opportunity of a lifetime – a scholarship to the Naale Elite Academy – and she jumped at the chance. Next year, she will enter 11th grade at a boarding school with a difference – it’s in Israel.
The Naale Elite Academy is a unique three-year program for Jewish teenagers who choose to come to Israel to complete high school with an Israeli matriculation certificate, which is accepted internationally. A boarding school experience with a difference, Naale enables young Jews to study at an exclusive, top quality academy while learning to be independent, self-sufficient and resilient – in the international melting pot that is Israel.
The program was established in 1992 as a joint initiative of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Education. Its mission is to enable Jewish high school students worldwide to study and to finish high-school in Israel. The first 12 years focused on bringing youth from the FSU to Israel, but eight years ago, Naale Elite Academy opened its program to the West, including English-, French-, German- and Spanish-speakers.
Since the program launched, more than 20,000 select high school students from the United States, Europe, the FSU, South America, Germany, Poland and South Africa, among others, have been given the opportunity to fulfill their dream of attending high school in Israel through the program, a unique three-year scholarship program co-funded by the State of Israel (the Israeli Ministry of Education) and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Naale Elite Academy has four schools that cater to English-speakers from Western countries. These range from co-educational (Mosenson Youth Village, Hod Hasharon) and religious Orthodox (Yeshivat Shaalvim, Nof Ayalon near Modi’in for boys and Ulpanat Amana in Kfar Saba for girls) to religious Haredi (Beit Chana in Tsfat).
Every potential student has to go through a series of interviews. Besides the interviews, two tests are required before accepting candidates – one to determine their academic level in Math, English and Hebrew, and a second to determine their maturity (and thus their ability to live away from home), which requires psychological testing.
All students coming from Western countries must be proficient in English, even those from non-English-speaking countries. While students are initially taught in English, Hebrew is gradually integrated into the classroom. By the time the students reach the 11th grade, they are being taught, tested, asked to write reports and converse in Hebrew exclusively.
Students graduate with one of the top high school educations in the world in a country that is known for its entrepreneurial success despite its young age. But more importantly, they have also learned to manage their time, take care of their own finances, look after themselves in a challenging environment without their parents and become independent – preparing them for the world in a way that no other regular high school can achieve.
“Compare 18-year-olds who have just graduated after living at home and having their parents around throughout their high school, taking care of them and looking after them, to the graduates at Naale who have experienced the past three years on their own in another country, managing their own time, their own money, their own lives,” says Chaim Meyers, coordinator of the Naale Elite Academy program at Mosenson.
“They’re far more independent, more mature, and able to control their own lives. And their parents feel the same thing. They see the differences in their children. Even after one year, many of the parents say they don’t know their child – and this is meant in a positive way,” he says.
Aviv Gadi’s Israeli parents moved to Los Angeles about 25 years ago. Growing up an only child, she loved visiting Israel every year to spend time with her cousins, many of whom are her age. Throughout the years of visiting the country, she grew more and more attached to the possibility of a life here. When she was given the chance to finish high school in Israel, she jumped at the chance.
“I really love Israel,” says Gadi. “I don’t regret coming here at all. This is my first year here and when I arrived, I didn’t know a single person, but I’ve met so many people. Being in a new and different environment is challenging. You don’t have your parents around and you don’t have their shoulders to cry on. All of a sudden you’re all grown up and you have your own money and you have your own time and you have to manage it correctly. It was really tough in the beginning, very, very overwhelming. You see the same faces every single day for 24 hours a day, six days a week and at times, I just wanted to go home.
“It’s a real challenge, but I came here for a reason and I eventually realized this was where I wanted to be and I’m really happy with my decision. I love where I am. It’s still challenging, sometimes I get into fights with people, I still miss home, but that’s how you learn to accept one another and you learn to become a big, strong group and I’m very, very happy,” she says.
High school is a tough time for teenagers, especially the last three years working towards matriculation. Naale Elite Academy believes in offering its students every possible type of support it can provide, including a full-time house mother, full-time counselor, and a nurse, who live on campus, a social worker and a psychologist who are available whenever they are needed, full academic support, and financial assistance.
“The best part is being independent, knowing you’re your own person,” says Gadi. “For me, it’s discovering I can fend for myself and that ‘Mommy and Daddy’ don’t always have to be there for you. Even at ages 15, 16, 17, you can make your own choices – well, not completely because you have counselors around you all the time, but you need to make mistakes to know what you’re doing wrong.”
Naale Elite Academy is a microcosm of Israeli society, a real melting pot of people from different countries, cultures and outlooks. There are about 800 students in the school; 600 day students who live in the Hod Hasharon area, and about 200 boarding school students. From the boarding school students, 50% are English-speaking (foreign) students and 50% Israelis. And this is what Lorine Chajet from Germany finds very exciting.
“I think the best thing for everyone here is that we have met so many new people from all over the world. In no other place could we have met people like this. My friends are from the Philippines, America, Canada, Australia, South Africa … everywhere. I love living here, being a part of Israel. It’s fun. You can’t even compare it. I feel more comfortable being Jewish here.”
Every scholarship comprises a full airfare for the flight to school at the beginning of the 10th grade year, full room and board, free tuition, off-campus travel expenses, tiyulim (special trips), a budget for maintaining telephone contact with family, a monthly stipend and laundry service. There is also an option of two to three years free tuition at an Israeli university, before or after the army. The only cost involved is a one-time $500 registration fee.
All students are admitted to the country on an extended tourist’s visa and need not make an Aliyah commitment of any kind. Students can, however, choose to make Aliyah when they reach the appropriate age.
Statistically, at the end of 10th grade, about 20% to 30% of the students decide to return to their home countries. Of those students that stay on in 11th grade, 99% of them continue to 12th grade. And of the students who finish 12th grade, about 85% of graduates stay in Israel and go to the army or university. Twelfth grade is when they decide they either want to stay and build a life in Israel or they don’t see their future in the country.
“The students don’t leave because they don’t like Mosenson,” says Meyer. “They leave because they see their future somewhere else. They all say they’ve had a really good experience and they recommend the program. In fact, through them, we get many students coming the year after they leave.
“The interesting part is that of the 15% that go home after graduating, more than 50% of them return to Israel within a year. After being here for three years, they develop an idea of how it’s going to be when they get back to their home countries. But when they go back, their experience is totally different from their perceptions. Suddenly their friends and their lives there seem so different.”
The students must live in the dormitory during the school week, but may choose to visit family and friends on the weekends. Arrangements are made for those students who do not have family with whom to spend Shabbat and holidays. A bilingual host family from the surrounding communities is assigned to all Elite Academy students to provide them with moral support and home-away-from-home hospitality.
“This is an amazing program and an incredible opportunity,” says Meyers. “But it’s also a very challenging program and it’s not meant for everyone. To be able to come on this program, the students need to have a minimum amount of independence, which is checked through the tests we do. The main thing about this program is that it’s for students who want to live in Israel while doing high school and afterwards. They want to start building their lives here early on. That’s what’s so unique about it.”
Parents who are thinking about sending their children to Naale Elite Academy and would like reassurance have many avenues to find out more about the program, “but first,” says Meyers, “I’d tell them to speak to the parents of students that are here already because usually they’re better spokespeople than we are. They know the program and the framework we have here to support their children, and they know their children have everything around them to ensure they get the best care at all times.”
As the counselor for the Grade 11 English-speakers, Lee Nojman spends every day from 4pm to midnight with her group of 20. She understands the reluctance many parents have when making the decision. “I know it’s really hard to let your child go to another country and be independent and grow up without you watching them, but I think that parents need to seriously take into account their children’s futures and what’s going to be good for them in the long run,” she says. “They’ve been offered an opportunity that if they’re accepted and if it’s something that they want to do, it’s not worth holding them back.
“If it’s something that they feel they want to do and it interests them and it’s in their blood and if they need a change, then it’s the most unbelievable opportunity. And it’s not set in stone. Yes, they come here for three years and it’s a different lifestyle and a whole new experience for them, but it’s such a positive experience. There’s no looking back afterwards. No one regrets it. No one. There’s nothing they could regret from taking this chance,” says Nojman.
Applications for the 2012-2013 academic year can be submitted until July 10, 2012. Screening days are taking place in numerous places around the world during June and July. All applicants receive an answer within two weeks and are expected to be in Israel for the start of the academic year on August 27, 2012.
Interested applicants can register through the Naale Elite Academy’s website elite-academy.org, which is available in seven languages – Hebrew, English, Russian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and German. Or email Ofer Dahan, Director of Development, Western World Region firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.