By Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod/JNS.org
For students at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI), the Jewish state has become a home away from home. Although some may be feeling homesick at this time of year, and with more than a month of their program still to go, the school surprised them with a Thanksgiving feast fit for a Pilgrim.
While Israelis carried on with a typical weekday, these American students—enrolled for a semester of studies, travel, concerts, and authentic Israeli experiences—were eagerly “gobbling” up all the tastes of home at last week’s meal, which included the traditional Thanksgiving staples of turkey, wild rice stuffing, and cranberry sauce.
During the meal, students went around the table to share some personal thoughts on what they were each thankful for and helped themselves to some apple pie accompanied by non-dairy ice cream—in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. Though the school accepts Jews of all denominations, and even non-Jews, all events are “Shabbat-friendly and kosher,” said Rabbi Mordechai Cohen, AMHSI’s head of school.
“The school’s diversity makes it exciting,” Cohen said. “When we bring these young people together from all around the world, especially from the U.S., they have a tremendous sense of wanting to be part of something larger, and they form a community. We help them, but what we’re really doing is helping the students invest in their own community.”
For Samantha Winkler of Mason, Ohio, and Jayda Rabin from Charleston, S.C., having the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving among new friends in Israel was a special experience.
“It was great to celebrate something that I do back home every year in my new home with my amazing friends,” Winkler said.
“It was nice to have a Thanksgiving dinner with all of our friends that we’ve met through the program,” Rabin added.
AMHSI hopes students will return home with an understanding of Israel that goes beyond the newspaper headlines. Many come from small towns where there are few or no other Jewish families at all, like 16-year-old Sammy Sonkin of Centennial, Colo.
“Israel blew me away,” Sonkin said. “Flying into Ben Gurion Airport, I just felt like I could breathe. It was the most amazing feeling and I will never forget it. Driving around, seeing Jews everywhere.”
Sonkin is already planning to come back. He said, “The first time I went to the Kotel (Western Wall), I absolutely fell in love. I feel so much at home here.”
When discussing his future return to Colorado, Sonkin said, “I really want to show my friends that this country is so much more than what you hear on the news.”
According to Cohen, that is AMHSI’s goal.
“All we ask of our alumni is that they take something that they’ve found in the program and take it with them, whether that is identifying more with Am Yisrael (the Jewish people), gaining knowledge and communication skills, or basic Jewish literacy; to take one piece and further their lives with that piece,” he said.
Working at AMHSI, Cohen said, is a “dream job” for any Jewish educator.
“You get to work with students, giving them a sense of pride about their heritage. There is something extraordinarily special about having the land of Israel as our classroom,” he said.
Founded in 1972, AMHSI was reinvigorated in 2013 by a partnership with Jewish National Fund (JNF) to promote Zionism among North American students. Joint initiatives include a fellowship that sends Arizona teens to AMHSI for free each summer, along with a JNF internship program.
More than 1,000 students come to Israel through AMHSI per year, earning U.S. high school and college credits, according to Cohen. Alumni include Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer; Lauren Weisberger, author of “The Devil Wears Prada;” and reggae star Matisyahu, who has called his time at AMHSI “the first time in my life that I felt that being Jewish was something that was important and there was something to be discovered.”
Like Sonkin, many students are already planning to return to Israel or to take time after their semester to tour the Jewish state with family, including Matan Kutno, 16, of White Plains, N.Y., who is somewhat of an expert already.
“This is my 10th time in Israel,” said Kutno, who got to travel to Poland with AMHSI as part of the school’s unique Poland/Israel eight-week session.
“It’s a great program. I’m really glad that I’m doing this,” he said.
Though the Thanksgiving feast may not have included home cooking, the familiar flavors—and turkey table decorations that are tough to find in the middle of Israel—were just another reminder for the American students that Israel will always be like home, as it is for Jews worldwide.
“There’s a good life here,” said Liad Volman, 24, an Israeli madrich (guide) who spends almost every day with the students. “We want them to remember what they saw in their own eyes, and not in the media’s eyes; that’s the message, and what we want them to spread in the world.”
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