It isn’t often that a clipping from a local newspaper changes one’s life. But in Josh Kaplan’s case, that’s exactly what happened when his mother stumbled across an ad for Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) and quietly tucked it away for a year until Kaplan entered his junior year of high school.
“I was going off to college and I wanted to study during the summer. I wanted to do something interesting and engaging and I thought this was the perfect opportunity for me to learn about my ancestry, especially as I entered adulthood,” Kaplan said when explaining why he chose to enroll in the school’s six-week summer program last year as an Arizona Impact Fellow, one of a series of leadership programs the school runs.
As someone who came from a mostly non-observant Jewish home, it was important for Kaplan to reconnect with that aspect of his life. He found that reconnection instantly when he visited the Western Wall his first Friday night in Israel.
“My grandfather told me that he’d always be with me. It was his life-long dream to visit the Land of Israel and, unfortunately, that never happened,” Kaplan said. “I brought his tallis [prayer shawl] to the Western Wall and I remember standing inches from the stones. I wrapped his tallis around me and began to cry.”
For the first time in his young life, Kaplan felt part of a greater continuum of Jewish identity.
“I felt this connection for the very first time that I never felt before: I’m a Jew and I belong here,” he recalled.
When it comes to AMHSI alumni, Kaplan’s story is not unique. A central goal of the school is to teach about Israel as a dynamic, vibrant country that’s full of history, and aims to make learning an immersive experience. That means dull Power Point presentations are out and interactive field trips are in for students who enroll in any of their programs, whether it be their summer course, eight-week mini-mester, or 18-week semester sessions.
The school was founded by the late Rabbi Morris Kipper and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation in 1972, and now admits more than 1,000 students a year.
“Every student who comes to AMHSI – no matter which program – learns our Israel Studies curriculum that spans more than 4,000 years of Jewish and Israeli history,” Shana Sisk, associate director of marketing for AMHSI, explained.
“Sometimes it’s a traditional lesson, but other times it’s a much more interactive experience like reenacting a battle scene or climbing up Masada and having an ethical discussion about what happened there. We put our students in the shoes of our ancestors, so they can experience the history firsthand,” she said.
Rabbi Leor Sinai, co-executive director of AMHSI, explained that this kind of handson learning impacts students far beyond the time they spend on its Hod Hasharon campus.
“There’s a long-term effect that we’re making. Having experienced our program and living the Jewish calendar in the Jewish state, creates a lasting impact beyond high school, and life on university campus,” he explained, adding that teaching students as they are on the cusp of adulthood is a critical time when it comes to instilling values that they’ll carry with them for the rest of their life.
As someone who went to AMHSI 34 years ago, Ronald Werner is direct proof of such a student.
“Graduates of Muss are, simply put, much more likely to be engaged in the Jewish world. They’re more likely to marry Jewish, maintain a Jewish home, and be involved in their synagogue,” Werner, who serves as a board member of both AMHSI and Jewish National Fund (JNF)-USA, explained.
Unfortunately, for years, AMHSI never leveraged those amazing students that came out of the school and didn’t solidify an alumni network.
JNF, which was looking to enrich its educational programing for young adults, was happy to fill that void. Thus, four years ago, a “shidduch” (match) was made between the two organizations, and now AMHSI is part JNF’s extensive series of programs as part of its Israel Continuum, which spans from early childhood through age 40.
Werner hopes that with JNF’s backing AMHSI’s future is secure, and that means cultivating the next generation of Jewish leaders.
In addition to identifying with one’s Jewish heritage, Werner explained that AMHSI is useful when it comes to the one thing young adults care about most: getting into a good college.
“I’m convinced I performed better in college because I went to Muss,” Werner claimed, saying his time there made him more self-sufficient, helped him develop crucial critical thinking skills, and taught him the ability to survive in a new environment far away from home.
Carol Doherty, founder of Doherty Educational Consultants, would know. As a consultant who helps students from across the United States find the best college to suit their intellectual, social and financial needs, she’s seen how AMHSI participation can do wonders when it comes to the college application process.
“It was interesting to me because it was so different from what the typical teenager is doing,” she said, recalling her visit to the campus last year. “It’s a wonderful historical experience. Students make a commitment to understand their past and their religion and they develop a commitment as a citizen of the world, quite frankly.”
In her view, the AMHSI experience is a valuable one because it goes beyond a novelty trip that some students take where they go off to a faraway country and do humanitarian work for a few weeks.
In this case, AMHSI offers students an opportunity to really understand the Land of Israel.
“The students who attend AMHSI can come back and explain their experience on a larger scale of what they learned and what they’ve done and that is far more impactful,” she said.
And even for students who are reluctant to get away because they have so many obligations back home with involvement in AP classes or various extracurricular activities that are expected of top-notch students, Doherty would still recommend they take the plunge and go.
“Students tell me, ‘There’s so much pressure with a rigorous course load, there’s no way I can go away for eight weeks.’ But I think that’s a bit backward. An eight-week course at AMHSI is far more enriching than an AP course,” she said.
“It was an intensive, incredible experience,” Werner agreed, recalling wandering around the streets of Jericho as a curious teenager. “We put ourselves in the sandals of the people of this period,” he joked.
This article was written in cooperation with JNF-USA.