South Florida students depart Miami for Jewish National Fund-USA's Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Credit: Courtesy.
South Florida students depart Miami for Jewish National Fund-USA's Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Credit: Courtesy.
featureJewish Diaspora

Study-abroad program helps Jewish high-schoolers connect to Israel

This experience reminded me that Israel is an “everlasting homeland,” a junior told JNS.

Steve Kutno was impressed with his son’s experience at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel study-abroad program in 2015. Last December, Kutno, who has more than 30 years of experience as an educator, became the program’s head of school.

In June, Muss opened a second campus in Beersheva that can accommodate 1,500 students, part of the growing academic and technological hub that is being established in the southern Israeli city. Founded in 1972, its main campus is nestled in Hod Hasharon, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

Kutno told JNS he aims to keep growing Muss’s offerings.

“Right now, we’re somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 students a year,” he said. “We’d love to get to about 2,500 or more.”

The program, which is more than 50 years old, drew 367 students—largely from the United States, but also from Ireland and Argentina—this past summer. The high-schoolers visited the Western Wall, Masada, and other sacred and historical sites during the program, which is operated by the Jewish National Fund-USA.

“I have really enjoyed meeting with so many of the students who have come through our programs,” Kutno told JNS.

‘The whole country is our classroom’

Both Muss and JNF-USA aim to grow the number of student participants, both Jews and those who are not Jewish, but who have a strong desire to learn about Israeli history and its connection to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.

Kutno, who was a teacher before transitioning to senior publishing and educational technology roles, also aims to create more learning experiences.

“The whole country is our classroom, and some students are even fortunate enough to fly over to Poland where they learn about that dark period in our history, the Holocaust and the rise of Nazism,” he said. “We want to augment that with more experiences and more usages of technology.”

What he calls the “third leg of that stool” is ensuring that “the lived experience in Israel, including the dorms, dining room, communal living, informal education and time outside the classroom, is as rich and rewarding as everything else that we do inside the classroom.”

“One of my goals over the next few months and years is to really bring us up a level,” Kutno said.

Understanding the Startup Nation

Shimmy Weintraub, 17, from Las Vegas, visited Israel for the first time this summer when he participated in a six-week Muss program. The senior at Coral Academy of Science spent time studying in the classroom and also had the chance to travel around the country, which he felt strengthened his Jewish identity and love for Israel.

“Before the trip, Israel was just a country that I heard of and that is important in my religion,” he told JNS. “I didn’t have any love for Israel before the trip because how could you love somewhere if you haven’t been there? But after the program, I loved Israel a lot, and I still do.

“It really is an amazing country, and I’m glad that I finally went there,” Weintraub said.

It was also the first time that Zach Braverman, 18, from Naples, Fla., visited Israel. Braverman, a senior at Community School of Naples, was part of a four-week Muss entrepreneurship program. It was unlike any experience he’d had before, he told JNS.

“The combination between traveling around Israel and learning about the deep history that runs through the roots, and the learning of entrepreneurship, was just right,” he said. “I learned so much through the interactions with the startups and the lectures from venture capitalists and other business high-ups.”

Braverman also learned how popular and innovative Israeli startups are. In fact, he said, “I left realizing why they call Israel the Startup Nation.”

‘A bridge for connection’

Jordana Braun, 16, from Weston, Fla., had been to Israel before. But participating in a Muss travel abroad program elevated the experience of uncovering new places and forming connections with newfound friends from around the United States, she said.

A junior at Cypress Bay High School, Braun participated in a five-week Muss program, which had a trip (tiyul) as a focal point each week.

“I experienced a great bond with my ancestors and my faith, feeling a connection that resonated within me,” Braun told JNS. 

“The overwhelming sense of pride that Israel embodies truly struck me, solidifying its status as the ancestral home for all Jewish individuals,” she said. “Even at my young age, this experience served as a bridge for connection, reminding me that Israel is an everlasting homeland.”

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