By Mara Fahl
After their bus pulls up next to the park that hugs the Tel Aviv shoreline, the high schoolers stream off and run straight for the playground and rather than climb the structures and play on the swings, they begin scrambling through their backpacks for their notebooks. The energy and excitement at being outside seems normal for a group of teens, but these students are part of an experience that is anything but normal.
These students have had the worldly experience of traveling to an archaeological dig at Tel Gezer where they explored ancient Canaanite society, to Masada where they learned of the Israelites’ triumphs and downfalls, to the Galilee where they encountered crusader sites alongside Israel’s natural beauty, and to too many more places to name. These students who have elected to spend their summer at Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI-JNF) are studying history intensively, and while they are earning school credit and even college credit as they prepare for the upcoming journey of applying to universities around the world, their studies this summer are anything but traditional.
While most students might wait until college before spending a semester abroad, these teens have decided to spend a semester of high school in Israel, where their academic education is enriched by experiential learning. They live what they study, going out to different places in Israel to see and experience first-hand what many of their peers learn about only from books.
On this trip, the students are exploring Tel Aviv’s first neighborhood as part of their history lessons about the earliest towns and cities established by Israel’s pioneers more than one hundred years ago.
“We’re learning about the history of Tel Aviv as a ‘Hebrew’ city, not a religious one, and then, as a group, we will discuss what this means in terms of Jewish identity,” says Israel Instructor and AMHSI alumnus Danny Stein.
Founded in 1972, AMHSI boasts over 25,000 alumni from around the world. As a non-denominational program, semester abroad – college prep – program AMHSI successfully caters to the full spectrum of students seeking a unique Israel and global experience that goes deeper than most short-term trips can offer. The main campus is located in Hod HaSharon, just outside of Tel Aviv, and this was the students’ first educational trip to Israel’s largest city and its modern hub. The program covers the 4,000 years of the history of Israel in chronological order, no simple task, as the teens explore their rich history and grapple with the complexities of Israel’s past and present, discovering their own futures as Jews and global citizens.
It’s no wonder then that Tobias and Sophie Tenenbaum, cousins from Miami, FL say that they weren’t sure what to expect, but now they don’t want to go home. Their favorite part of the program is how busy they are going out and seeing new things. More than that, the program has changed their self-perception, “I’m not religious and I don’t go to temple,” says Tobias, but this experience makes Judaism feel more like a community than a religion which is easier to connect to.” Surely, the founders of the State of Israel’s secular haven and Hebrew city, Tel Aviv, would be pleased to hear this.
Noami Gluck from Syosset, NY says that even though she’s been to Israel many times and has family there, it’s very different to be on her own and exploring the country as a student instead of as a tourist and she appreciates getting to see the places where history occurred first hand. “The biggest difference from a regular school is all the trips. It’s really fun and you meet a lot of people and go a lot of places.”
Siblings Nicole and Noah Zedeck, from Steamboat Springs, CO decided to follow in their father’s footsteps, and attend the program as a way to have some time together doing something fun and different before Noah heads off to college in the fall. They talk excitedly over each other about what makes AMHSI so special, Nicole saying that “this program is unique because you learn so much in class from the beginning on the first day, and you really get the big picture,” to which Noah added that “the fact that you visit all the sites and see them firsthand is incredible. Nicole nods along enthusiastically, “you’re aware that history took place.” Clearly AMHSI will be a cherished experience for the siblings for years to come, just as it continues to be for their father.
Sitting by the beach, Stein manages to gather the group’s attention in order to regale them with the story of Tel Aviv’s founding in 1909. He speaks about the necessity of a new city due to overcrowding in next door Jaffa, which he points out just down the coastline, an ancient port city which has become a bustling and vibrant center of art and culture in modern-day Israel. Then, to transport his students back in time, Stein pulls out a few pictures of sand dunes and camels, photos from the beginning stages of building Tel Aviv, and explains that these pictures were taken more or less where they are sitting now.
The students listen intently, quietly taking notes on the names of the city’s founders. Sitting in the park, Stein reminds the students what they had learned about the earliest Jewish settlements and how they had been small religious communities built near holy cities in Israel. For these kids, mostly from secular backgrounds and mostly from North America, Tel Aviv looks like a modern city, even familiar in some ways, which is quite a departure from the ancient sites they’ve been visiting like Masada and Jerusalem.
As Stein talks about the radical idea of a few Jewish pioneers to build a city in the sand, the kids are clearly captivated as they look from Jaffa to their left to the tall buildings of Tel Aviv on their right. It seems crazy to think of people leaving the safety of the walled city of Jaffa to build something new, however for these teens who have left their families and homes behind for six weeks to go halfway around the world, it’s surely an adventure that has transformed their lives forever.