In the sleepy suburb of Hod Hasharon sits the campus of the jewel in the crown of experiential Israel education. The Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) has been the leader in this field for over four decades. I was privileged to spend some of the best years of my life teaching the core Jewish history curriculum at AMHSI. The philosophy of the program is simple, to bring American adolescents to Israel in order to strengthen their Jewish identity through an awareness of the bible and the flow of Jewish history at the places were key events that shaped the destiny of the Jewish people occurred!
Tuvia teaching his class at AMHSI
During these field trips throughout the length and breadth of Israel, at various historical and religiously significant sites for the Jewish people, the AMHSI educators try to encourage the participants to discuss how the particular events of the period in discussion affected the Jews at that time and what the implications are for our current situation.
The concept of “experiential education” calls for a utilization of all of one’s senses in a dynamic, stimulating and challenging atmosphere. One cannot replace or artificially create an experience. One has to be there to feel it! The AMHSI mission statement reads:
Our Mission is to promote, build, and strengthen lifelong bonds between youth and Israel through study of the history and culture of the people of Israel. We build and strengthen relationships between Diaspora Jews and Israel through education, experience and understanding, one learner at a time.
As is made evident in the mission statement above, the school aims to increase the level of Jewish education, Israel awareness and Jewish/Zionist identity among Jewish high school students. It is important to focus on high school age participants because, as the influential study, “Being a Jewish Teenager in America: Trying to Make It,” by Kadushin, Kelner and Saxe (2000) claims:
With the possible exception of the family, no single institution does more to shape the lives of American adolescents than schools.
As crucially important as the “Birthright Revolution” has been over the past fourteen years, it is important to remember that Birthright was founded to address the crisis of rampant assimilation and disconnect of Diaspora Jewish youth to their faith and land. Fully sixty percent of American Jews marry out of the faith, seventy percent have never been to Israel and forty percent have no Jewish education at all! Regarding the majority of Diaspora Jewish youth, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks famously observed:
They know about the Holocaust – about how Jews died, not how they live. They know about Israel, but that is somewhere else, not here. Today’s young Diaspora Jews are the most secularly educated and Jewishly illiterate of all time. Their knowledge of what previous generations of Jews lived and died for is negligible.
The ten day Birthright trip is not a replacement for a long-duration quality Israel education program in Israel such as that offered at AMHSI. The AMHSI programs consists of either an eight-week curriculum for public school educated students from tenth to twelfth grade, or an 18 week semester program, or various tailor-made programs for Jewish day schools in the United States and Australia. Students at AMHSI use Israel as a living classroom and in the process gain a strong understanding of the concept Yonatan Netanyahu referred to in one of his letters, that the Jewish people are not just the “people of the Book” but also the “people of the Land.”
Finding a way to replenish the three core ingredients for Jewish survival and continuity: attachment to tradition, peoplehood, and the land itself is, I believe, the most critical challenge facing the Jewish people and Jewish education today. The AMHSI odyssey through Jewish history and tradition in our homeland positively connects Jewish adolescents in the critical developmental years of their lives and exposes them to the glory of Israel and our people!