U.S. Hebrew students visit Israel for the first time

32 eighth graders from public charter schools in America are touring the country they've studied for years

Hebrew Language Academy students tour Israel this week. (photo credit: HEBREW PUBLIC)
Hebrew Language Academy students tour Israel this week.
(photo credit: HEBREW PUBLIC)
Zhara Adeyemi was born in Brooklyn to a father from Nigeria and mother from Jamaica. Victor Oleynik lives in New York with his Ukrainian parents and speaks Russian as his mother tongue.
The two eighth-grade students have devoted years of their life to intensive study of Hebrew at the Hebrew Language Academy - a public charter school in New York City.
This week, Adeyemi and Oleynik and 30 other middle schoolers are visiting Israel, the country they have spent years studying about but most have never seen.
The group, which arrived in Israel on Monday, is made of up eighth graders from two schools in the New York area run by the Hebrew Public organization, which creates and supports Hebrew-language charter schools across the US. 
"The day we got the paper [for the trip] I signed up," said Adeyemi, who added that she is most excited to visit the Western Wall during her visit. Since arriving earlier this week, Adeyemi - who has attended the school since second grade - said it's been great to "make a mental connection with everything that you've been taught."
Over the past decade, immersive Hebrew-language charter schools - which are fully funded by the government - have been popping up across the United States. The first was the Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood, Florida, which opened in 2007. The Hebrew Public group, funded primarily by the Steinhardt Foundation, opened its first school in Brooklyn in 2009. Now it counts 13 schools in its network, and is constantly working to open more across the United States. Hebrew Public estimates that at least 50% of its student body is not Jewish.
"Our biggest goal is to provide a great education for kids, and to teach them Hebrew and about Israel and help them grow up as global citizens with respect to other people," said Valerie Khaytina, the chief external officer of Hebrew Public.
She said the network currently has 13 schools for 3,000 students, and hopes to one day have 20-30 schools for 10,000 students.
"If you think that's a lot," said Khaytina, "you should know that the largest charter school network in the US is funded by the Qatar Foundation, and they have 120 schools." (While the Qatar Foundation has donated millions of dollars to US public schools over the past decade to fund Arabic-language programming, it does not operate a school network.)
The HLA students have already visited Caesarea, had dinner at a Druse village, biked near the Kinneret and taken part in an archeological dig. Their itinerary includes a visit to Masada and the Dead Sea, a stay in a Beduin tent, a tour of Jerusalem's Old City, time at Yad Vashem and a hike in the Jerusalem hills. 
"It's not a Jewish school so we really have to show the diversity of Israel," said Khaytina. "We pride our schools on being diverse schools; we have kids that come from all over the world who reflect the neighborhood they live in. When we teach Israel, we also show Israel as a democracy, and we're focusing on the fact that - just like in the United States - in Israel there are people from all over the world."  
This is the second year that Hebrew Public has organized a trip to Israel for its students. This year, they're making sure the pupils meet up with their Israeli counterparts for an immersive Hebrew experience. During this trip, the group will meet students in south Tel Aviv who are taught by their former teacher. The Steinhardt Foundation's Israel branch actively seeks out Israeli teachers to take part in a two-year teaching fellowship at the charter schools before returning to teach in Israel.
Oleynik - who has been at the Hebrew Language Academy for nine years - said he was most looking forward to see the Dead Sea and the Kinneret, and was pretty excited to sign up for the trip.
"When's the next time your school's going to take you somewhere across the country?" he said. "This is my first time [in Israel] and I'm loving it."
The trip was offered to all graduating students of the network's two middle schools. Khaytina estimates that around 30% of the eighth graders opted to come on the heavily subsidized trip; parents had to pay anywhere from $300 to $1,800 depending on their financial situation. The visit also kicks off the students' connection to the school's alumni association, which she hopes will stick around even if they forget their Hebrew after they graduate.
"We really want them to have a connection to Hebrew and to Israel," said Khaytina. "We're hoping that they will be friends of Israel for life."