A life-changing experience

Naale, an elite program that enables Jewish youth from the Diaspora to complete their last three years of high school in Israel, offers a rare opportunity for students to discover themselves and meet new people.

naale 521 (photo credit: Courtesy GPO)
naale 521
(photo credit: Courtesy GPO)
A small seed of an idea planted by former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 has turned into one of the most successful Jewish high schools in the country. Naale Elite Academy, an all-expenses-paid high school program for Jewish teenagers from the Diaspora, celebrates its 20th birthday this month.
Naale is a microcosm of Israeli society, a melting pot of young people from different countries, cultures and outlooks. Started in the early ’90s for youth from the former Soviet Union, the high school now welcomes Jewish students from more than 50 countries around the world.
Avital van Meijeren Karp, 18, graduated from the academy last year. After graduation, she returned home to Canada and is taking time off to be with her family before she makes any life decisions.
“Attending high school in Israel changed my life in so many ways,” she says. “It really opened my eyes and my mind to new things. Before, I had never even considered joining the Israel Defense Forces. Now it’s one of my main options. Coming from a small town in Canada, I only knew what I had grown up around, but Naale opened me up to so many different cultures and people.
I really grew as a person.”
Late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin summed up the success of the program – which is funded by the Education Ministry and the Jewish Agency for Israel – when he said, “There is no more noble enterprise than Naale.”
DURING THE early ’90s in the FSU, many Jews were concerned about their children’s future. The education system there had deteriorated drastically, and parents needed to find other options.
According to family and friends living in Israel, the standard of education in the country was high, and FSU parents believed it would be a good place to send their children.
They spoke to the Israeli shlihim (emissaries) about the possibilities, and not long after, the concerns found their way to then-prime minister Shamir.
Shamir himself had wished to study in Israel as a child growing up in Eastern Europe. He discussed the situation with Zevulun Hammer, then education minister, who believed that all Diaspora Jews had a right to a strong Jewish education. After many discussions, the idea to bring these youngsters to school in Israel at no cost to their parents, and without having to commit to making aliya, was born.
Yeshayahu Yechieli, now director of Naale, found out about the idea and mentioned it to his friend and mentor, Aryeh Kroll, secretary- general of the Religious Kibbutz Movement at the time. The two were already involved in a program that brought Russian Jewish youth to Israel for a young leadership program. These youngsters had stayed on Kibbutz Yavne for three months initially, but decided they wanted to stay in the country to study. Most of them ended up staying for three years.
“When I heard about the idea, I asked Aryeh to approach Zevulun to let him know we had experience in running such a program and could help the Education Ministry to set it up,” says Yechieli. “They were very supportive of us and were happy that we wanted to take control.”
After travelling to the FSU and talking to Hebrew teachers and parents of potential students, answering questions, screening applicants and making decisions, they had a list of over 300 teenagers. The wait for the relevant papers and passports meant that the new students would miss two months of school, and an alternative had to be found.
“With the help of the Education Ministry, in the space of two weeks, we had a team of 30 teachers flown in from Israel, and they started the school term with the students. In November 1992, we arrived in Israel with all 336 students, and the Naale pilot program was officially launched,” he recalls.
Today, the academy has 16 schools for Russian-speakers and four schools that cater to English-speakers from Western countries, spanning the religious spectrum from secular to modern Orthodox and haredi (ultra- Orthodox).
“The first decade was about establishing and building the Naale brand, and focused on bringing youth from the FSU,” says the program director. “Once this was a success, we knew it was time to expand. The second decade was the ‘dream’ decade. In 2000, we opened it up to other countries, starting with Argentina. Many thought we were crazy, but three months later we had 100 applicants, and after the screening and evaluation process, we had 50 students, who started in September of that year.”
Other countries followed, and the idea became an international project. Since the program was launched, there have been more than 30,000 applicants, 14,500 pupils selected and 11,500 graduates from the United States, Europe, the FSU, South America, Germany, Poland and South Africa, among others.
“Have you ever heard of a state that would pay tuition for 14,500 foreigners without asking them to commit to anything?” asks Yechieli. “Yet this is what the government of Israel has done over the past two decades. And now, as we enter our third decade, our focus will be on special programs for excellence.”
NAALE HAS some promising initiatives planned. The first, which will be launched in September 2013, aims to bring in 30 students from the Diaspora and put them together with 30 Israeli students, with a focus on training them to be engineers. This is a joint initiative with World ORT and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Similar initiatives for 2014 will include a language program with a particular focus on Chinese, and a music program.
“We want to be more focused on specific fields to give our graduates a better chance when they leave Naale,” he says.
Potential students have to go through a series of interviews and two tests – one to determine their academic level in math and English, and a psychological exam to determine their maturity (and thus their ability to live away from home). Those selected spend their last three high-school years at the academy.
Every scholarship consists of full airfare to the country at the beginning of the 10th-grade school year, full room and board, tuition, off-campus travel expenses, field trips, a budget for maintaining telephone contact with family, a monthly stipend and laundry service.
There is also an option of two to three years’ free tuition at an Israeli university, before or after the army.
All students are admitted to the country on an extended tourist visa (unless one or both of their parents are Israeli) and need not make an aliya commitment of any kind. Their status does not change as long as they are living alone in the country without their parents. However, they can choose to make aliya when they reach an appropriate age.
Those coming from Western countries must be proficient in English – even those from non-English-speaking countries. While students are initially taught in English, Hebrew is gradually integrated into the classroom. By the time the students reach the 11th grade, they are taught, tested, and asked to write reports and converse in Hebrew exclusively.
Students graduate with one of the top high-school educations in a country known for its entrepreneurial success despite its young age. But more importantly, they also learn to manage their time, take care of their own finances, look after themselves in a challenging environment without their parents, and become independent – preparing them for the world in a way that most regular high schools do not.
“The best part was graduating with an Israeli matriculation,” says Karp.
“It’s an amazing feeling to know that you accomplished something so special and did something that you would have otherwise only dreamed of.”
In addition, she says, “it’s really great to be in an environment where you are constantly surrounded by people who care about you. Your friends comfort you when needed, and the staff is always there to offer advice or help. I think it’s absolutely amazing that I can say I have friends all over the world – Australia, Germany, Mexico, Norway....If we hadn’t attended Naale, we never would have met.”
THIS PAST March, to celebrate Naale’s 20th year, students, graduates and faculty members were invited to the Prime Minister’s Office. His spokesman for the FSU, Alex Selsky, who arranged the visit, is a Naale graduate.
Among those at the meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu were graduates and pupils from 15 countries, including IDF officers, outstanding lecturers and researchers, social activists, artists and hi-tech entrepreneurs like Raphael Ouzan, co-founder of the company BillGuard. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Naale’s directors from the Education Ministry, Yechieli and Yechiel Shilo, were also in attendance.
“I am impressed by the personal journey that each of you has made in [coming] to Israel,” Netanyahu told the group. “Your success has been extraordinary. I appreciate this, both personally and on a national level. You are building up the country. Israeli society is built on the younger generation.”
Addressing those who had made aliya since finishing school, he said, “Without a doubt, Naale is a type of exodus from Egypt. I hope that each one of you continues to climb higher and higher here in the Land of Israel.”