The statistics are quite daunting: young Diaspora Jews are disengaging from Israel in ever-increasing numbers, with many having never shown any serious interest in Israel to begin with. Last year at the AJC Global Forum in Washington, I presented my absolute belief that the only way to combat this looming tragedy is by bringing high school students on educational trips to Israel.
Waiting to go on Birthright trips after they have already experienced university campuses is too late. They need to be prepared beforehand for the anti-Israel sentiment that they will face in college, and the most effective method for being equipped is visiting Israel and learning about its successes and challenges – including the Palestinian conflict – firsthand.
Many in the Israeli government are searching for solutions to engage Diaspora youth in Israel. Investment in a high school Birthright would be the ultimate approach. But there is no need to recreate the wheel. A model already exists which has the potential to impact thousands of Jewish youth from around the world.
The Alexander Muss High School in Israel, now in partnership with the Jewish National Fund, has been providing an academic and experiential program to Jewish high school students from the Diaspora since 1972. Some 26,000 students have received this fusion of formal classroom study in which they learn 4,000 years of Jewish history and tour the land to see and feel that history. There are options for six-week, eight-week, and full-semester abroad programs for sophomores through seniors. The academic curriculum is accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, and students can even receive college credit for the course via University of Miami.
Alumni describe this as a transformative experience which provided them with a clear intellectual understanding of where we come from and where we need to be heading, along with a strong and deep emotional connection to Israel and their own Jewish identity. Ninty-eight percent of the alumni have called the program the most transformational education experience of their lifetime.
Benjie Kaplan, an AMHSI alum who now serves as the executive director of the University of Minnesota Hillel relates: “I believe that my time at AMHSI put me on this journey to advocate for Israel and, given the climate on college campuses these days, I’m grateful that they gave me the initial tools needed to do the work I’m doing today.”
The core of the experience is the remarkable Jewish history course. Students learn about Israel from the time of Abraham’s arrival, the era of Joshua and the Kings, the eras of the first and second temples, and then the advent of modern day Israel going back to the 16th century. The tours to see where these stories took place are carefully woven into the fabric of the classroom study. Students learn about the challenges the Jews faced in each of these periods, and how their ancestors confronted them. As alumnus Mihal Levinas wrote, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to come to Israel and live through history.”
One of the most impressive aspects of Muss High School is its Impact Fellowship program. While all Muss alumni return home educated and inspired to be their own ambassadors for Israel for life, this is a special track for students who are identified as future leaders in Jewish life. These young men and women are provided with workshops on critical thinking, social media, marketing and public speaking, weekly writing and creative assignments to document their experience, leadership training, and connections with local professionals to speak at events upon their return home.
As government ministers and Jewish philanthropists worldwide grapple with the challenge of how to prevent assimilation, how to combat BDS on campuses and on social media, and how to engage Jewish youth with Israel, they should look no further than the testimonials from alumni of the Muss High School in Israel and they will see the solution right in front of their eyes:
“Because of Muss, I am forever changed as a friend, a student, a world citizen, and a Jew.” -Isabel Glass, February 2014
“Going on AMHSI was by far the most amazing eight weeks of my life. I learned so much and was able to connect to Israel in a new, unique way…I really became attached to the land and found no trouble uncovering my Jewish Identity. It’s a feeling and experience I will keep with me for the rest of my life.” -Jamie Weil, April 2010
“AMHSI changed my life for the rest of time. It helped me grow up and look into the meanings and prospects of my future and past. I am so amazingly grateful to all those who helped send me on this wonderful journey, which I still find myself walking.” -Danielle Zabrauskas, December 2009
“It was amazing to learn new things about my ancestors. It made me feel more connected that I ever did before.” -Ella Debode, April 2015
“It would’ve been hard for me to defend Israel before; now, I have the tools that I need.” -Britt Jacobson, AMHSI – Milken Tiferet Israel Fellowship, Spring 2015
“HSI gave me an intense love and commitment to Jewish life and being involved in the Jewish community.” -Joshua McLeod, February 2007
“Before coming to Israel, I would have identified myself as a Jewish American rather than an American Jew. I used to feel more connected to my nationality because I didn’t really understand how much my ancestors fought to remain Jewish and allow for me to be Jewish today…Although I may indulge myself in some American pleasures, I know my connection is with Judaism and with Israel and when I return home, I will be in the west but my heart will stay in the east.” – Ivy Bernstein
I plan to continue lobbying Israel’s ministers and Jewish leaders internationally for investment in Muss-style schools to reach thousands of Jewish youth per year. It is THE solution to the crisis facing Diaspora Jewry youth – and there is no time to waste.