“Freedom” carries a host of meanings, especially for Jews at a time of year that celebrates the festival of freedom, Passover.
For parents, a free high school education for their children in Israel means the freedom from burdensome tuition or the freedom to choose a Jewish education that otherwise would not be within reach.
For teenagers on their way to becoming independent adults, freedom is about learning to handle everyday life without direct parental supervision.
Na’ale Elite Academy in Israel addresses all these definitions.
Funded by the state of Israel and the Jewish Agency, Na’ale — which means “we will go up” — offers a free three-year high school experience to diaspora Jewish teens. On-campus room and board, health insurance, extracurricular activities, field trips, pocket money, and even the initial flight to Israel all are covered. Na’ale was started in 1992 for kids from Europe, South America, and South Africa; the program began accepting North American applicants in 2003.
This year, more than 1,600 Elite Academy participants from across the world are studying in 25 different Israeli high schools. Among them are two Bergen County girls, Shawn Kissil of Fair Lawn and Danielle Haziza of Upper Saddle River. Both chose to attend Mosenson Youth Village, a coed multicultural day and boarding school in Hod Hasharon.
Shawn said she picked Mosenson for several reasons, among them its proximity to Tel Aviv and its large group of about 200 English-speaking boarders. “There are lots of interesting electives at Mosenson, and it’s a cool environment,” Shawn said. “This year we’re focused on learning the language and the culture.”
In the combined ninth and 10th grade, the foreigners attend ulpan (Hebrew language) sessions for 18 to 20 hours per week in addition to their regular high school classes, and by 11th grade they are more or less fully integrated with their Israeli peers. They meet other Elite Academy participants during events and trips around the country.
“I like the feeling of independence, learning the responsibility of living on my own, and being able to be with my Israeli relatives more often,” said Shawn, 15, whose roommates come from Florida and Arkansas.
However, she added, “Living alone is hard to get used to. When I go to visit family in Tel Aviv and Haifa, sometimes it’s difficult to travel alone. You have to be confident and aware. What you need most is optimism. The beginning is hard, and you have to be able to see through the difficult parts.”
Chosen through an application and selection process, the students are supported by a network of professionals including dorm counselors, social workers, language specialists, psychologists, and teachers at each Elite Academy location.
The program is offered at high schools that run the gamut from secular to religious, some with intensive tracks in areas such as science and art, and some catering specifically to students who speak a particular language.
Though most Elite Academy students arrive in their second year of high school, Shawn opted to enter directly after graduating from Thomas Jefferson Middle School.
“I always felt connected to Israel,” she said. “I was born here and lived here until I was 4, and we speak Hebrew at home. I visited my relatives here a lot. So I decided I wanted to try a new experience. My parents realized it was something for my happiness, and they’re okay with it.” She went home for Sukkot vacation, and her parents and three siblings came to visit her recently.
Elite Academy students take the internationally recognized Israeli high school matriculation exam, the Bagrut. They receive assistance if they wish to join the army or make aliyah after high school, though neither is required. In fact, in another twist on the freedom theme, students do not even have to commit to stay the entire three years.
“For now I want to stay, but I don’t know about the future,” Shawn said.
Danielle Haziza, 16, is wavering between going into the Israeli military or going back home for college after she graduates from Mosenson in a couple of years. Like Shawn, her parents are Israeli, and she came to visit Israel every summer since she was a little girl.
“I saw my cousins and friends living the Israeli lifestyle and they told me how great it was,” Danielle said. “It was fun to be with all Jewish people and I thought it would be really cool to live here. My parents want to come back eventually, but I didn’t want to wait any longer. At the beginning they were against my going, because they would miss me. I told them that since my dad’s parents live here everything would be okay.”
Danielle started Mosenson in August 2015. “Some people come with zero Hebrew. I speak it well, but the classes helped me write and read it at a higher level,” she said. “This year, I take one class with the Israeli students and during recess and lunch and other breaks we are always with them. Next year, in 11th grade, we’re going to be in most of their classes, and I’m excited to be a part of that community.”
Her best friends are from Colombia and Italy, but everyone in the Mosenson Elite Academy program speaks English.
Danielle noted that Israelis are more independent at a young age than are most American children, and she feels she has matured this year by being around them. “Before I came here I never took public transportation,” she said. “And sharing a bathroom at the beginning was really weird for me, but you learn to compromise and have your own time and respect others’ time.”
Danielle attended the Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School in Rockland County through sixth grade. Although Mosenson is not a religious high school, the curriculum includes Bible and Hebrew, two subjects she obviously wasn’t learning at Northern Highlands Regional High School. Israeli high school students choose a major, and Danielle opted for psychology.
“The most difficult thing is being apart from my parents and family, not being able to come home every day,” she said. “But your friends and counselors get you through it, and give you a sense of family.”
As for her friends from Northern Highlands, “they were surprised that I was going to Israel, but now they see my pictures online and say they wish they could do this too. A lot of people are oblivious to what Israel really is — they think we ride to school on camels — and I think I’ve made them a little more aware of the reality here.”