Waiting in the terminal for their teens to emerge from Customs, parents spoke about the last three months. Gloria Kirschenbaum explained that thanks to e-mail, she had heard from son Joshua almost daily. From the tenor of his messages, academic studies were not a priority. He and his classmates went camping in the Judaean desert, ate meals in a Druze village, and thoroughly participated in local life. To Kirschenbaum's relief, however, "about two weeks before the trip ended, he was ready to come home."
For Cena Abergel's son, Aaron, this has not been the case. Aaron had taken so enthusiastically to the fun and freedom of the Israeli teen lifestyle that he's determined to go back and finish high school in Tel Aviv. How does Abergel feel about this? "Very confused," she says.
Peter Reynolds, who, with wife Kathy, hosted Oshri Harari last fall, says that his son, Ben, had an ideal experience living in the Harari home. Ben advanced his Hebrew conversational skills while playing with Oshri's two younger brothers, and the trip offered a perfect way to further his interest in Israeli technology. (As a computer enthusiast, Ben joined with another student to capture the whole Israel adventure on the Milken Web site.)
Because the Reynolds and Harari families share the same level of religious observance, Ben felt completely at home when joining the Hararis for Shabbat dinners and a festive Passover seder.
By contrast, Josh Kirschenbaum had to seek out his own Israeli relatives on Passover because his thoroughly secular host family did nothing special to mark the holiday.
When the students finally rejoined their American families and friends, they were both elated and exhausted. Paula Birnberg took time out from a lot of affectionate hugs to contemplate what Israel had meant to her: "I feel like I've grown in many ways," she said. "I lived a whole different life there."
She changed emotionally, too, coming to think of Israel as her true Jewish home: "I didn't get it before, why people were willing to die for Israel." Now, presumably, she does.
Birnberg, who comes from a family that takes its Conservative Judaism seriously, also encountered a secular lifestyle for the first time. She brought along Shabbat candlesticks, and by the end of her stay, her host mother was lighting candles, too. On Passover, Birnberg had a special experience. Though she missed out on the traditional family seder, her hosts took her to Egypt, where her awe at being in the places her ancestors had wandered gave the holiday a whole new meaning.
By every measure, the first year of the Milken-Tichon Hadash exchange program has been a resounding success. Last year at this time, school administrators were hard-pressed to round up sufficient applicants. This year, half of the Milken freshman class is clamoring to be included in the selection process for February 2000.