KARMIEL, Israel — High school semester abroad programs give students an inside view of another culture, offer a chance to meet lifelong friends and help them learn more about the world.
With dozens of similar programs to choose from, the new Dror Leadership High School (DLHS) is hoping Grade 10 and 11 students from Canada and the United States will choose a semester in northern Israel as their destination.
DLHS will kick off its first semester in January 2014. The program aims to give Jewish youth an opportunity to really experience Israel, learn about Jewish and Zionist issues, and help mould a new generation of community leaders.
“Jewish communities around the world are in need of young leaders who are strong in their Judaism, active in their communities and possess first-hand knowledge of Israel, both its beauty and its challenges,” said Sivan Bamberger, director of the Dror program, based in the Galilee city of Karmiel.
Registration for the inaugural semester abroad is open until mid-October. George Stevens, the program’s educational director and a former British Columbian with deep roots in the Vancouver Jewish community, said the ultimate goal is to host 25 students in the program.
“We expect five to 10 students for our first class. We want to have a high student to teacher ratio, as we want to give them the best experience they can have,” Stevens said in an interview.
That ratio is unheard of in Israeli classrooms, where the Education Ministry allows 40 students per teacher.
Stevens stressed that the students will “take North American-style classes” while experiencing Israel on social, cultural and geographical levels.
“They’ll learn Jewish history the Israeli way. First learn about it in the classroom and then, the next day, go see where it happened,” he says.
DLHS has an agreement with the Adam Hevra Ve’Teva school in the town of Karmiel, just outside of Haifa, to operate an English-speaking, American class within the Israeli high school.
For decades it was a kibbutz-based high school program that brought North American teens to Israel for a semester. Bamberger raved about the program she attended some 15 years ago.
“The spirit of kibbutz – community, camaraderie, a safe space for everyone – really trickled down to us, the North American students,” she said. “It was a very influential experience that gave me self-confidence, lifelong friendships and the skills to be a Jewish leader. Unfortunately, that program no longer exists, so we’re building a new one in that spirit, but which is updated to reflect the realities of Israel in 2013.”
Stevens said that throughout his years in Jewish education – among other posts, he served as program director at Or Shalom Religious School in Vancouver – he learned that “the best way to truly experience Israeli society is to live as a part of it and contribute something to it. This way you meet Israelis and understand the issues they face.”
The Jewish educators behind the program chose the small city of Karmiel in order to keep the community spirit an option. “It’s a great city and it’s bigger than a kibbutz, more interesting, but it’s very peaceful and quiet. In Karmiel, you can experience every walk of life in Israel,” Stevens said.
As for parents worried that their children may not want to come back, the DLHS program is not meant as a push toward aliyah.
“We’re not going to say, ‘This is why you should make aliyah.’ Sixteen years old is too young to think about aliyah, but they can think about Israel and what role they want it to play in their lives,” he said. “We hope the students will develop a deep, lasting connection to Israel and a better understanding of what it means to be Jewish.”