For as long as he can remember, Kevin Delijani, a 16-year-old sophomore at the Milken Community High School, supported Israel “because my parents told me to,” he said. And although he had visited Israel on two previous occasions, it wasn’t until Delijani spent four-and-a-half months living and breathing Israel on the Tiferet Israel Fellowship program that he felt truly connected to the country.
“By coming here, I speeded up the process of my commitment to the Jewish people and Israel. Now I personally feel that way,” Delijani said recently during a high-spirited yet emotional farewell dinner in Jerusalem.
This was the fourth year that Milken students have studied at the Tiferet Israel program at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, and, according to the kids, they couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
Like all Muss programs, Milken/Tiferet combines intensive study with volunteer work and numerous field trips to locations throughout the country. Seventy-eight Milken sophomores — about half the grade — studied in Israel this year. The trip is heavily subsidized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
But the Milken/Tiferet program is unique in that its students come during their sophomore year, according to Chaim Fischgrund, headmaster of the Muss High School in Israel.
“All our programs have the same goals — to enhance Jewish identity and knowledge, to strengthen the connection with Israel and fluency in Hebrew — but unlike the others, which bring juniors and seniors, the Milken students have two full years of high school to use their Israel experience to enhance the rest of their education and community involvement. It gives a bigger payoff when they come home,” Fischgrund said.
The fact that Tiferet Israel lasts 19 weeks enables the Milken students to study and explore the country in greater depth, Fischgrund said.
Motivation among the Milken kids also tends to be high because “they are self-selected. No one forced them to come,” the headmaster emphasized.
The program’s backbone is Core, an intensive, interdisciplinary course in Jewish history from biblical times to modern times.
To better understand the period of the Patriarchs, during the Middle Bronze Age, the students were taken to Tel Gezer, where they learned about pagan civilizations and the role archaeology plays in the understanding of history. They visited the Gilboa region and the City of David excavations in Jerusalem during their studies of the First Temple period and Belvoir Castle, a Crusader fortress, when it was time to learn about the Crusaders’ impact on Jews and the Holy Land of the time.
One of the program’s highlights was a weeklong hike from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee. The students slept outdoors.
“The Core class takes us through the entire history of Judaism,” said 15-year-old Ruth Rabinovitch. I never thought it possible to learn so much in such a short period of time.”
Rabinovitch said she was touched by the “heroes of the Jewish people” throughout history, “the people I didn’t even know existed. I never realized how many people contributed to the development of Jewish history.”
By learning of their courage and sacrifices, Rabinovitch said, “it became clear that I don’t want other people to fight for me. I need to contribute to the Jewish people myself.”
Despite being ill with mononucleosis during much of his time on Tiferet, Daniel Kort, 15, also called the Core course a definite high point.
“It’s one thing to learn history in a classroom. It’s another to actually go to the place where it all happened.”
Kort said he was particularly moved by his group’s encounter with a Holocaust survivor and during visits to the Holocaust museums at Yad Vashem and Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, in the Western Galilee.
Although she had been to Israel twice before, Leora Nessim, 16, said nothing could beat the feeling of hiking across the country with her friends and counselors.
“We grew so much closer by sharing in this accomplishment, and we got to love the country and nature at the same time,” Nessim said.
For Max Berman, the uniqueness of Israel hit home during the group’s first field trip, to Jerusalem.
“It was the first time I felt that Judaism doesn’t have to be boring. I really started to enjoy Shabbat. Another time, in Safed, we went to a synagogue where people were dancing around in a circle. I felt very connected. I found my Jewish identity in Israel,” Berman said, smiling.
As did Kort.
“I came here as an atheist, and I’m leaving an atheist, but I discovered more aspects of my Jewish identity. Before Israel, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to raise my kids Jewish, and now I feel it’s important to raise Jewish children,” Kort said.