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If you read much of anything about Jews in the Diaspora written by Jews here in Israel, you are quite likely to get depressed. As seen from Israel, American Jews in particular are rapidly assimilating, intermarrying and melting away into the general population of the US and Canada.
Jewish identity, we are frequently reminded, is weakening; and emotional ties to Israel - once unquestioned - are now rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The problem, we are told, is particularly acute among Jewish young people.
And yet, upon closer examination, we see that Jews from all over the world continue to visit Israel, especially Jewish youth. Jewish young people continue to tour the country, hike and backpack everywhere from the Golan to Eilat, and study Hebrew in ulpans. Some still even pursue the "classic" Israeli experience of living and working on a kibbutz. And, just as in years past, the overwhelming majority of these young people come away from their visits with a fresh commitment to Israel, a heightened Jewish identity and, for many, a desire to stay in the country and build a life here.
Thousands of other young men and women have wound up their visits to Israel with a year of college credit or outright Masters degrees from a prestigious university located in one of the most dynamic cities in the world. Since 1968, more than 20,000 young people have availed themselves of a unique opportunity presented by Tel Aviv University's (TAU) School for Overseas Students.
Undergraduate students from abroad can take either a semester or full year off from such universities as Harvard, Stanford and Cornell and enroll in the Overseas Student Program (OSP) for full academic credit. Courses offered to undergraduates fall into three categories: Jewish Studies, Israel Studies and Middle Eastern Studies. In OSP's graduate program, instituted in 1973, students are offered a full two-year curriculum leading to a Master of Arts degree in Middle Eastern History, taught by some of the leading professors and researchers in the field. One such figure is David Menashri, TAU's Dean of Special Programs and world-renowned director and senior researchers at TAU's Center for Iranian Studies.
Although the language of instruction for all of the academic courses is English, summer and winter ulpans in Hebrew are offered and, in fact, required for all students staying more than one semester. According to Tal Eidelman, assistant to OSP's program director, "All the courses we offer are in English, but if a student has a sufficient level of Hebrew he can take courses in the regular university as well."
The M.A. program also requires instruction in Arabic, and a summer ulpan in Yiddish is also offered to anyone interested.
A total of 263 foreign students were enrolled at OSP during the past school year - 187 undergraduates and 76 students in the graduate program - reflecting a healthy rise in enrollment over the previous year. While the lion's share of OSP's students are from the US and Canada, the UK, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Brazil, South Africa and China are also represented - by both Jewish and non-Jewish students. Tuition fees are about the level of most state-run universities in the US - far cheaper than private schools like Columbia and New York University (NYU) - and various types of financial aid are available from OSP's New York office and the Jewish Agency's scholarship program. Eidelman adds that other support is available from the Ministry of Absorption for students who become new immigrants.
Recognizing the difficulty and expense of finding suitable housing in Tel Aviv, OSP offers dormitory accommodations on campus to all its students. Many, however, ultimately prefer to rent their own apartments in Tel Aviv, to be closer to "the action" and integrate more fully with Israelis.
A full schedule of trips, extracurricular cultural and social activities and special events round out the students' experience in the program. "The students enjoy their time here very much," Eidelman says. "In fact, many of them eventually tell us that the time they spent here was the very best time in their lives. We have even had the experience of several marriages here in the program. After all, this is a very good place to meet good people."
The students' affection toward the school, Eidelman adds, persists long after they have completed their studies and returned to their home countries. "Afterwards, they miss the university, they miss Tel Aviv, and we see them often because they keep coming back to visit."
Many international alumni - now in the throes of successful careers in government, business and academia - also provide substantial financial support to the Overseas Student Program.
With certainly no shortage of good universities in their home countries, why have more than 20,000 students chosen to come to TAU's program for foreign students? For some, like Milwaukee, Wisconsin native Noach Jubelirer, 26, Zionism has served as the major driving force. "I've been planning on making aliya for the past five years. I knew I was going to be in Israel no matter what, so I decided to further my education here. My life is here."
Moreover, Jubelirer had spent his freshman year as an undergraduate at TAU, and two older brothers had enrolled at the OSP before him. Now working toward his M.A. in Middle Eastern history, he looks forward to a career in diplomacy.
For London native Leora Garton, 23, the yearning to live in Israel was augmented by a desire to study history - her passion - in a place where it is taught with the broadest possible applications. "I wanted to continue studying history without landing in academia just yet. I really don't know whether or not I want to teach, so studying history the way it is presented here leaves me with many career and study options open."
She notes that while there are several good Middle Eastern Studies programs available back home in Britain, "none of them offer the language options that are available here, or have professors like those here."
Chantal Yazbek, a 25-year-old film student from Cape Town, South Africa, agrees. "I looked at programs in America and England. In all cases, they are not teaching Middle Eastern Studies, rather the Middle East in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Here, we are able to learn about the internal dynamics of the Arab countries themselves, not just the usual focus on Arabs vs. Israel."
All three agree that there is virtually no substitute, either intellectually or emotionally, for studying the Middle East while actually living in the Middle East.
For other students, like NYU graduate Daniel Zaffran, 28, money plays a role in their decision to study at TAU. "It took me a long time to decide what kind of graduate studies I wanted to do, but once I decided I wanted to learn about the Middle East, the main reason I came here is that the tuition is about a quarter of the price of education in the US. One year at Columbia or NYU - the places I would have looked at - now run about $40,000. Here, I'm paying less than a quarter of that."
Zaffran hopes that his studies at TAU will position him for a career in private-sector international consulting. While price was a major motive, he adds that he was also drawn to study at TAU because of the school's political objectivity and balance. "Graduate education in the US and Canada tends to be mostly left-leaning. I think that I'm getting a much more objective perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict here in Israel than I'd be getting back in the US."
In addition to the program and its academic offerings, virtually all the students agree that a major attraction is the city of Tel Aviv itself. Says Wisconsin native Jubelirer, "I fall in love about six times a day, just riding the bus and looking at some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. This city is wonderful and fascinating. I've become addicted to it."
What does the future hold for TAU's Overseas Student Program? Director Rachel Bar El envisions a two-fold direction for development, involving the addition of more courses such as business, literature and archeology, as well as setting up courses that include both foreign and Israeli students. These courses, Bar El says, will be taught in English, and Israeli students will be required to take at least one. "I think this is very important and beneficial for both groups, Israeli and overseas students," she says.
Bar El anticipates a steady growth in enrollment along with the growth and diversification of course offerings. "We love the program," she says. "We feel that it's a mission, and one of the most important things the university does."
For more information about Tel Aviv University's Overseas Student Program, contact Ami Dviri, Director of OSP, US Office, Tel. 212-742-9030, firstname.lastname@example.org, or call the Israel office at 03-6408639.