When enrolled in the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, reading from a textbook about an event in Jewish history is just not going to cut it. A true AMHSI experience has a student first learn about a subject in the classroom in Hod Hasharon, and then see where the event unfolded, with his or her own eyes.
Nicole Palatchi, Madeira, Ohio, experienced just that when she attended AMHSI-JNF in 2014. She hiked the Yam l’Yam (Sea to Sea) Trail, a popular 89-km.
trek that runs from Nahariya on the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee.
“Not only did I have fantastic, meaningful conversations with my peers over these three days, but my teacher Aubrey Issacs encouraged me to challenge my opinions,” Palatchi said. “I never had anybody challenge my Jewish beliefs previously, and reflecting now, I know that this was integral to my Jewish development.
“Conversations over these three days made me realize that attending Muss itself was a spark of curiosity for me that continued on throughout my life.
I cherish the connections that were fostered and deepened on this meaningful hike through today,” she added.
That formula – learning through experience and encouraging self-reflection, all while striving for academic excellence – has forged AMHSI path to success for the past 45 years.
“Our six-week, eight-week and full semester abroad programs have welcomed and educated 26,000 American [primarily] high school students in 10th, 11th and 12th grade since 1972, and is growing every year. Our program includes General Studies, accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, and Israel Studies – 4,000 years of Jewish and Israeli history via experiential learning, using the land as the classroom,” Rabbi Leor Sinai, co-CEO, wrote in The Jerusalem Post earlier this year.
The school, founded by the late Rabbi Morris Kipper and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, now admits more than 1,000 students a year. Four years ago, it secured support from Jewish National Fund-USA and is now part of its Israel Continuum initiative that fosters Jewish learning and enriching one’s connection to Israel from early childhood through age 40.
Alyssa and Saul Sutton, who attended the program in 1986, are the embodiment of the school’s ultimate goal – passing on a passion for Israel and Jewish identity to the next generation.
Alyssa Sutton, who grew up in Millburn, New Jersey, calls her time at the school a “game-changer.” While she was not dating her future husband at the time (romance came later), the two enjoyed the school as friends and the love that did blossom that year was not for each other, but for Israel.
For the Suttons, AMHSI was a transformative experience. As children who grew up secular, with no strong connection to Judaism or Israel, attending the school changed their entire outlook.
“It really takes secular kids who have little to no knowledge of Israel and brings that knowledge to a whole different level,” Alyssa Sutton marveled.
“Our connection to Israel has evolved from Muss without a doubt,” she said.
“Once we got married and had our own family, [sending our children to] Muss was a nonnegotiable issue. We just knew it was going to happen.”
The family plan became reality last year, when their daughter Eliana enrolled.
Initially, Sutton explained, their daughter worried her experience wouldn’t live up to the hype, since both parents gave only glowing reviews of the school. However, Eliana had an equally positive experience.
Of course, with college applications and SATs in mind, many young adults are hesitant to hit the pause button so they can attend AMHSI.
Sutton and Palatchi insist that does not have to be the case.
For Sutton, her college essay focused on her trip to Masada, which was one factor that secured her acceptance to New York University.
Palatchi already completed the application process by the time she arrived at AMHSI, but was able to take Advanced Placement classes during her time there, and said she appreciated the one on one attention she received from teachers due to the small class sizes.
Today, she is continuing to work on her Israel connection, by participating in the JNF’s Campus Fellows program.
As a fellow at Ohio State University, she is grateful for the opportunity to advocate for the Jewish state back home. The program is situated across 16 campuses across North America and trains and supports pro-Israel college students to promote Israel as a country striving to make the world a better place.
“I think it’s very easy to slip back into not actively pursuing Judaism. The more I invest my time in Jewish outlets, the more I want to give back. The Campus Fellow program is an excellent opportunity for me,” Palatchi said.
For Benjie Kaplan from St. Paul, Minnesota, another AMHSI alum, advocating for Israel has become a career. The executive director of Hillel’s University of Minnesota’s chapter, Kaplan believes Alexander Muss High School taught him early on the importance of working to help others enrich their connection to Israel.
“I believe my time at AMHSI put me on this journey to advocate for Israel and, given the climate on college campuses these days, I’m grateful that they gave me the initial tools needed to do the work I’m doing today,” he said.
Other alumni, like Hollywood director and producer Brett Ratner, have shot to super-stardom in completely different fields. The X-Men: The Last Stand director attended AMHSI in the summer of 1985, and although his calendar is full of non-Israel related events, he still dedicates time to honor his roots – so much so that later this month he will be awarded Jewish National Fund-USA’s Tree of Life™ award by Wonder Woman Gal Gadot, at the organization’s annual event in Los Angeles.
As AMSHI continues to flourish, it is also dipping its feet into the adult learning pool. Launched in December 2016, its Adult Journey Through Israel Program provides parents of AMHSI students with a two-day educational trip throughout the country, so they can get a sample of what their children are experiencing.
Whatever the age, goals and dreams of a student, Alexander Muss High School can make Israel a place they will never forget.
This article was written in cooperation with JNF-USA.