A class of its own

Seeking to encourage graduates to remain in Israel, GMAX offers a solution for religious 12th-grade Anglo immigrants.

GMAX students  (photo credit: Courtesy)
GMAX students
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Lenore Kellman came to Israel with her family 18 years ago, her teenage daughter did not have a school to go to.
She was in 11th grade, which meant her class had already started matriculation exams, but her Hebrew was not fluent enough for the exams or the class material. The only option was a non-religious school in Kfar Saba that offered matriculation courses in English; but the school did not meet Kellman’s religious needs.
Years later, Kellman took matters into her own hands and established a test preparation program in Tel Aviv to train students facing similar difficulties to pass the GMATS and other standardized tests.
That program, called GMAX, whose slogan was “maximum results on the GMATS,” eventually inspired a larger program when Kellman realized there was a growing number of high school-age Anglo olim who weren’t managing in typical Israeli schools. Together with Ya’acov Martin, Kellman established a school in Jerusalem, in light of the Tel Aviv center’s success. A religious curriculum was added, and a one-year English-language high-school program geared towards passing the American GED and English psychometric exams was born.
The school offers a full 11th/12th grade high-school curriculum, as well as Jewish studies. Students graduate after having taken the American GEDs – which act in Israel as the equivalent of an American high school diploma – and the psychometric exam, thereby circumventing the matriculation system.
Now in its fifth year, GMAX has seen some 85 students walk through its doors. Some go straight to the army or National Service, others first attend a post-high-school institution such as yeshiva or seminary, while others go right into college.
One of the unique features of GMAX, since it’s only a one-year program, is the work put in once the students leave. “We love to work with our graduates,” says Bruria Martin, principal of GMAX. “For the first five years after high school, they are applying to many different institutions… We like to help our graduates navigate their way through the process of applications and decision-making,” says the South African native who has been principal for the past four years.
Martin says the goal of GMAX is to instill confidence in the students so they can be successful “both socially and academically and then want to stay in Israel.”
According to Martin, 11th and 12th graders are at a very difficult age to make aliya. “They are formulating their self-identity, questioning their self-worth, while their families are experiencing many challenges at the same time.”
But many children who make aliya in their teens do quite well in regular Hebrew-speaking high schools, struggling at first but eventually picking up the language and making friends.
“We try to discourage applicants to GMAX who can make it through the Israeli system,” says Martin. “There is a certain percentage of students who will be successful in Israeli schools – those who fall into a supportive school that helps them, in which they can make friends and master the language.”
But some Israeli schools are more adept at absorption than others, and not all schools are even willing to take an 11th grader who just made aliya.
“I came this past summer, and I wasn’t accepted to Israeli high schools because of my Hebrew,” says Gabriella Pfeffer, an 11th grader from London. “They said they were already in the middle of matriculation, she recounts.
The downside is that the integration into Israeli society is delayed. As 11th grader Tovah Moskowitz puts it, “It is hard not having a Hebrew-speaking environment and it’s not ideal, but you have to do the best with the circumstances you’re given.”
But Moskowitz, who has been in the country since fifth grade, says that if GMAX didn’t exist, “I don’t want to think about where I would be – it would be a problem.”
She too struggled and because of the early age at which she arrived, she was not entitled to special dispensations offered by Israeli high schools to new olim.
But now, she says, “I feel I can excel and give 100 percent and not have to worry about trying to understand the language.”
Parents also appreciate GMAX. For the Masri family, who came with their six children, making aliya was no simple feat.
After arriving in Modi’in, they sent their 15-year-old son Joseph to a local high school. But he struggled there, as well as in two more high schools, including an English-speaking one.
“One day I came home and saw Joseph curled up on the floor crying, saying he would die a ninth grader because he couldn’t advance.”
Masri says that he and his wife had vowed they wouldn’t make aliya at the expense of their children’s well-being.
Finally, Masri learned of GMAX. “Not only did Joseph soar socially and academically, but he began to love being here,” recalls Masri. “Without GMAX, we wouldn’t be here anymore,” he says.
Joseph is currently enrolled in the Hebrew University’s mechina program and will attend the Technion next year.
But Masri’s story is not unique, says Joanne Yelenik, a GMAX history teacher. “There are just not enough mechanisms in place for absorbing children at such a sensitive, fragile age,” she says.
Yelenik says GMAX provides a year in which they can study “at their intellectual level and not feel that coming here was a bad idea. Instead, they have a supportive atmosphere… and then become confident and comfortable in Israeli society.”
Yelenik would like to see the Education Ministry’s treatment of these students be improved, particularly in recognizing their previous studies from abroad. But she sums up, “These children are happy here, and you can do anything with high school students who are happy.”