By Rachel Cohen
Mangals (bbq grills) were fired up, songs were sung and parties were had across the country as Israel celebrated its 71st year. But for some high school students from around the world, this Yom Haazmaut was a special one. Why? Because instead of celebrating from afar, they were able to bask in the excitement in their new (albeit temporary) home.
Sapir Keren, from Miami, for example, is currently learning at Naale Elite Academy’s Mosenson Youth Village. Her time studying at the cultural and experiential education co-ed Jewish high school gives her a sense of belonging she never felt before. “Being here and being surrounded by Jews has helped me feel safe,” she said.
That message of safety for all Jews seems to be lost among her friends back home, who she wishes could enjoy the Zionist dream with her.
“I wish my friends back home would understand the true meaning of the Jews having their own country,” she said. “On Yom Ha’azmaut, when you think of everything Jews went through to get to where we are today, it is simply astonishing.”
That collective awe for Israel’s myriad of accomplishments is not limited to Jews from the US. Benjamin Braun, from Nuremberg, Germany, too, has marveled at the triumph of the modern day Jewish state. He is only acutely aware that the joy behind this day is often overlooked abroad, where negative coverage of Israel reigns supreme.
“I wish my friends would understand that Israel is not a country who is looking for war as many in Europe think,” he said.
The students are just two examples of teens enrolled in Naale’s network of schools across the country. For students who attend Naale, it feels like winning the Zionist lottery: High school students from abroad receive a free scholarship that includes an initial flight to Israel, fully-subsidized tuition, medical aid, room and board, pocket money and learning Hebrew as well as standard core curriculum subjects like Math, Science and English.
Walking through the halls of a Naale school can at times feel like the corridors of the UN. English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian classes are all on offer along with, of course, Hebrew. Classes are offered in differing degrees of difficulty and adhere to the Ministry of Education curriculum. Upon graduation, students earn a full Israeli matriculation certificate which is recognized around the world.
Why the full ride? Both the Ministry of Education and Jewish Agency for Israel saw the importance of tapping into the younger generation of Jews worldwide and instilling within them a sense of belonging for Israel.
That overall message of creating not only a Jewish identity but an Israeli one often resonates with Naale students, making their Yom Ha’azmaut in Israel all the more special.
“I love being in Israel because I feel like I belong here,” Gaily Alfi, who attends WIZO Nahalal, said.
Rafael Albagli Zagha from Brazil, is thrilled with his decision to study and live in the Jewish state. “Since I started living here, I can feel that all of Israel is a result of the Jewish people’s effort to create the country, and I couldn’t be more happy of having a nation, and live in it!”
Some students don’t plan for their Israel experience to end after high school. Moishe Taifeld of Mexico City, said he plans to enroll in the IDF after graduation.
Of course, not all is celebratory the week of Yom Haazmaut. The day before, Israel observed Yom Hazikaron – Memorial Day – and a piercing siren is heard throughout the country as the clock strikes 8 p.m. and then again the following morning at 11 a.m. During that one minute siren that feels much longer, men, women and children stop what they’re doing to pay tribute to Israeli security officials who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the country.
“I am honored to be in Israel for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haazmaut. When I heard the siren, I thought about how far we have come,” Alfi said.
Paige Katz of Cape Town added, “It’s a true miracle and should be seen as an example for others and not a threat. Israel is a country that is truly built on love and strength.”
For those in the Chicago area looking to register for a Naale program in the next academic year, the registration deadline is around the corner. Those who want to enroll have until June 19. For more information, visit the Naale website at https://www.naale-elite-academy.com/en