Arrivals: Making the switch early in life

Samuel Capelluto, 16, from Milan to Sha'alvim, 2014.

Samuel Capelluto (photo credit: Courtesy)
Samuel Capelluto
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Samuel Capelluto barely knew a word of Hebrew or English when he came to Israel at age 15 to begin Naale Elite Academy, a fully subsidized Education Ministry program that enables overseas Jewish teens to spend their last three years of high school in Israel.
The choice was fully his, yet as soon as he landed from Milan, he feared he had made a huge mistake. He could not even communicate with the rabbi from Sha’alvim Yeshiva High School who came to pick him up at the airport.
“The first two weeks, I cried the whole time,” he admits. “I called my parents and said that I wanted to go back. They told me I was welcome to come home, but I had to try it for a longer time. One guy in my school had the same experience as me and he told me that one day it would be a funny story – and he was right. You still want your mom if you’re sick, but otherwise you get used to it.”
Capelluto not only got used to Sha’alvim within a couple of months, but grew to love everything about the school and living in Israel. The first year his classes were taught in English, and the Naale students had ulpan instruction 15 hours a week, so his proficiency in both languages skyrocketed quickly.
“Naale is a good program. It gives you an opportunity to come to Israel early in life, and it makes you more mature and comfortable in Israel and with the Hebrew language. You get to meet friends from around the world,” says Capelluto, who currently has roommates from Brazil and France, and last year roomed with boys from India, Belgium, the United States and Canada.
Just a year and a half after that rough beginning, he converses fluently with his Israeli counterparts and with his Naale classmates in English, and has happily adjusted to the switch from pizza and pasta to shwarma and falafel.
When he turns 18, he plans to go into the army for the full 32 months and stay in Israel for the rest of his life.
A true part of Israel
Capelluto emphasizes that he was not running away from Milan.
“Things are difficult in Europe now, but Italy is a great country,” he says.
However, he was self-conscious about wearing his kippa in public there.
“You feel weird because everybody looks at you, so I preferred to put on a hat. In Israel, it is my country and I don’t have to put on a hat on the street. I am at home. It’s a Jewish country and you can choose your own way religiously.”
Samuel’s mother was born in Italy, made aliya when she was 18, and went back after a year.
“She met my dad and stayed in Italy, but now she wants to come back here,” he says. Next year, his older sister will come to study at the Hebrew University, while his younger sister plans to join the Naale program, which offers participants a range of high schools and campuses to choose from.
His mother heard about Naale from a friend, and when she told Samuel about it, he was interested enough to inquire whether the program offered a high school with a national-religious bent.
Sha’alvim fit the bill, and he applied.
“I feel Israel is my home, and I felt the earlier I could come the better,” says Capelluto. “I think it’s the best way. If you come at 18 it’s more difficult to learn the language and culture.”
His mother supported his decision from the start, whereas his father was initially hesitant, but now agrees it was an excellent choice.
As for his friends in Milan, “They were happy for me but it was like, ‘Whoa, why are you leaving us?’ The only hard thing about my decision was leaving my family and friends,” says Capelluto.
Because his mother is an Israeli citizen, so is he. Capelluto recalls getting his Israeli passport at the embassy in Rome as a proud moment.
“I really felt I am part of Israel now,” he says.
Little Italy
Of course it is hard to be in Israel without any relatives, but he often goes to a family friend for Shabbat and he considers his Naale classmates as family.
His parents visited him last year for Hanukka and his older sister came in January.
Capelluto has another type of family too: the voluntary organization Irgun Olei Italia, which assists Italians before and immediately after aliya, and those involved in the Naale and Masa Israel Journey programs.
“I like this community because it makes you feel there is a little Italy here,” he says with a smile.
On February 26-27, he plans to attend a Shabbaton for students and soldiers sponsored by Hevrat Yehudé Italia, a cultural organization founded by Italian expatriates to serve people of Italian heritage living in Israel. This organization is headquartered in the S.U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art on Hillel Street in Jerusalem, which also functions as an Italian community center and synagogue.
In his free time, he likes to play soccer and hang out with his friends. He enjoys exploring Jerusalem and especially loves going to the beach in Tel Aviv with his classmates.
Like many other Israeli teens, he has aspirations to travel abroad, and dreams of going to South America for an extended trip after his military service.
“I would want to visit the whole world if it were possible,” he says.
Looking farther into the future, he thinks he would like to be psychologist or a lawyer. There is no doubt in his mind where he would practice either profession.
“I want to live here and have a family here,” he says.
He attended a Chabad school in Milan and reveres the Lubavitcher Rebbe as a religious role model, though he tries to take inspiration from everyone, in keeping with the biblical commandment “v’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha” – you shall love your fellow as yourself.
“There is something to learn from everyone. Even if we have different ideologies, we are all family and must love each other,” he says.