Growing up in Los Angeles, Asaf Shasha, then 16, had everything a teenager could want: a loving family, good friends and a comfortable home.
Still, Shasha couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to life than the fancy gadgets prized by the kids at his Jewish day school.
“Life was becoming very materialistic. Everyone was starting to get their license and cars,” Shasha, now 18 and a high school graduate, recalled recently. “It was a movie life where you were judged by how much you have, how expensive your car is. I didn’t want to get into that. I didn’t want to become that.”
After discussing the issue with his Israeli-born parents, Shasha made a big decision: to finish high school in Israel.
He enrolled in the Naale program (aka the Elite Academy), which in the past 20 years has offered more than 13,000 mature, gifted Diaspora youths a fully subsidized three-year high school experience at one of 26 religious, secular or traditional Israeli boarding schools.
Although fluent in Hebrew, Shasha wanted to be with other teens from English-speaking countries (10 percent hail from the United States, 60 percent from the former Soviet Union and the rest from other nations), so he chose to live and study at the Mosenson Boarding School, on the grounds of the Mosenson Youth Village in Hod Hasharon, whose campus also hosts English-speaking students from other programs.
The goal of the program “is to connect the students to Israel, to underscore the value of Israel to the Jewish people,” Chaim Meyers, the program’s coordinator at Mosenson, explained during an interview at the leafy campus.
Roughly 80 percent of Naale students remain in Israel through high school graduation; of these, about 85 percent decide to live in Israel for at least another three years, often in an army uniform or advanced yeshiva program. Of the 15 percent who return to their home countries following graduation, roughly half move back to Israel within a year.
Regardless of which school they choose, Naale students receive free tuition, room and board, medical insurance, a phone budget to speak to their parents, trips and a one-way ticket to Israel from the Ministry of Education.
The staff — program coordinators, teachers, counselors, house parents — keep an eagle eye on the teens, virtually all of them living away from home for the first time.
During their first year in Israel, the students study Hebrew 20 hours a week, in addition to 20 hours of regular coursework, much of which is taught in easy Hebrew.
“By 11th grade, their second year, they’re studying in Hebrew,” said Ofer Dahan, Naale’s director of development for the Western world. “Everyone studies toward their matriculation and [the academy has] a 93 percent success rate — the highest in Israel.”
The 60 percent of applicants who are accepted to the program must first undergo tests and interviews to gauge their maturity level and their ability to be in a group setting and live away from home. Knowing some Hebrew is helpful but not a prerequisite.
Once in Israel, students whose families do not live in the country are provided with a host family, where they often spend Shabbat and holidays.
Floren Avraham’s parents sent her to Israel on the Naale program believing they would join her in a few months. But it took the New Yorkers nearly three years to sell their house and make aliyah (her father is a returning Israeli).
Taking a seat on the campus’ central lawn, Avraham said she “loved living at home” but that moving on her own to Israel “made me much more independent, more confident, more open. It was an amazing experience, and, looking back, I can’t believe I did it.”
Avraham’s adjustment was softened by the fact that her grandmother lives just a short walk from the school; her uncle teaches there.
Unlike Avraham, Kareen Haim decided to move to Israel more out of a sense of adventure than anything else. Her Israeli-born parents are still in Los Angeles, “But they hope to move back to Israel in a few years,” she said.
“I wanted a change. I went to a fancy school, and I was looking for something more down to earth. People were snobby and looked down on people like me who aren’t rich.”
Since moving to Israel — which she had visited but didn’t particularly like — Haim has found the people “are a lot warmer than they are in America. And although she has many Israel-based aunts, uncles and cousins, Haim said, “My friends here at Naale have become my family because we rely on each other.”
Although she calls enrolling in the program the “right decision,” Haim said she wouldn’t have minded a bit more privacy.
“It’s like living in a small neighborhood where everyone knows everything about you — what you’re eating, what you’re wearing, how late you’re sleeping.”
The positive side is that “the counselors really care about us; they call us a lot to make sure we’re OK,” Haim said.
The students emphasized that the decision to attend Israeli boarding school shouldn’t be taken lightly, even by the roughly 50 percent of students who hail from a home with at least one Israeli parent.
“The adjustment was very, very hard in the beginning, and at some points I wanted to go back home to my parents,” Shasha said of the homesickness he felt. “But thanks to all the support I received from the staff and my parents, and after seeing how happy the 11th- and 12th-graders were, after two months I felt at home.”
While Dahan said that few if any parents encourage their children to apply to Naale solely to save the cost of a day school education, the fact that the program is free to participants makes boarding school in Israel a viable option.
Avi Toledano, who oversees Naale at the Education Ministry, said the ministry invests so much into the program because it makes overseas students excited about Israel.
“The hope is that after the kids come, the family will follow,” Toledano said.