High-schoolers spend session in Israel
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High-schoolers spend session in Israel

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In the program are Daniel Schwartz, third from front, left, Noam Weinreich, fifth from front, left, and Meir Friedenberg, front right.

It’s not just that Kibbutz Kfar Etzion is a lot smaller and quieter than Washington Heights, or that the kids speak Hebrew and address teachers by their first names. For the 10 sophomores from Yeshiva University High School for Boys spending six weeks at the kibbutz’s yeshiva high school on an exchange program, the differences in culture and educational approach are immense.

“The whole way they run the school is based on creating a community atmosphere that you can’t create in a school where people go home to their own separate communities,” observed Teaneck resident Elan Stochel, one of five North Jersey boys in the program. “Here, all the kids live in the dorm all week, so even their chill time is part of the yeshiva. They have their bikes here, they cook here, they’re part of something bigger.”

Stochel is so pumped about many aspects of Yeshivat Mekor Haim that he met with the six students slated to come to his school in January to discuss how they might introduce some of those facets into YUHSB – such as more partner learning, more peer mentoring, stronger student-rabbi relationships, and less emphasis on competition.

“At our school, there’s this race toward college and leadership positions and everyone wants to be at the top of the class,” Stochel said. “Here there is more focus on caring about everyone else. The attitude is, ‘Your success is my success.'”

YU administrators are far from dismayed at this sort of reaction. In fact, they welcome it.

“The culture of deep spiritual purpose and constant reflection that is the hallmark of the Mekor Haim experience has exposed our students to serious religious and intellectual growth in ways unimagined for the typical 10th-grader,” said Rabbi Mark Gottlieb, YUHSB head of school.

A simultaneous exchange has 10 students from Yeshiva University High School for Girls at a high school in Ma’aleh Adumim. (None of those students is a North Jersey resident.)

“What’s unique about this program is that the students are fully integrated into the Israeli classrooms,” said Tova Rosenberg, coordinator of the exchange program and director of Hebrew language studies at both YU high schools. “The students sit in on all Judaic studies classes, are included in all school activities, and are housed in the same dormitories as the Israeli students. They are not treated as guests, but as members of the student body.”

Now in its second year, the program aims to immerse the American students in Israeli culture and help them connect with their Israeli counterparts. Later this year, six Kfar Etzion students and four Ma’aleh Adumim students will reverse the experience. In addition to attending classes, the Israelis will tour New York City and Philadelphia to learn about American history and culture, and will experience life in U.S. Jewish communities.

Gottlieb said he expects the Mekor Haim exchange students to “inject a sense of passion, urgency, and authenticity into the rhythm of school life here” and to gain “a newfound understanding of the American Jewish scene.”

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Elan Stochel, in the second row, left, and Meir Friedenberg, fourth row, back right, are among a group of Yeshiva University High School students spending six weeks in Israel.

“By sending our students to Israel and bringing the Israeli students to our schools, we are opening the eyes of every student involved in the program to the reality of the ‘global Jewish community.’ As our future Jewish leaders, it is vital that they understand and are accepting of other cultures,” said Rosenberg.

The YU students go on field trips and have special Shabbat programs at YU’s Jerusalem campus. A counselor and tutor help them with integration and academics. Secular studies, taught in English, parallel exactly what the rest of the grade is learning back home. Judaic studies are mainstreamed.

“Some of the classes are hard for me to follow in Hebrew,” said Stochel, “but I was here [in Israel] for a year in fifth grade so I mostly understand the language. About four of us have a good grasp. The other six have been struggling. The teachers have been amazing about placing those who need more help next to Mekor Haim students who speak English – kids who either have American parents or learned the language from movies.”

The other North Jersey exchange students are Teaneck residents Meir David Friedenberg, Noam Steven Weinreich, and Daniel Schwartz; and Jacob Rappaport of Fair Lawn.

Friedenberg said Mekor Haim students seem to be always upbeat, excited to learn, and exceptionally friendly. “They’re a group of people with very different views and philosophies, but everyone is accepting of everyone else because that’s the way the administration and staff are as well,” he said. “My six weeks here will be a life-changing experience, showing me how to open my mind and … consider other possibilities.”

The students have had to adjust to new situations including Israeli dorm life, simple kibbutz fare, and what Stochel termed less clearly defined “personal space.”

He related an incident where one Israeli student accidentally elbowed a classmate in the face. “They looked at each other and then gave each other a big hug,” he reported with a laugh. “A lot of the Americans watching talked about that later. We had never seen an accidental jab ending in a hug rather than a fight.”

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