I sit in a cave near the Madras Ruins just south of Jerusalem, my legs dusty with the powdery chalk of the rock floor. I’m surrounded by 17 high school students, all busily unfolding oversized maps as their teacher, Rabbi Aubrey Isaacs, instructs them to mark where we are. I see other circled cities and towns—places these students have visited since arriving at the end of August.

Students studying in Israel get out of the classroom often and visit historical and religious sites across the country. PHOTO / JNS

This onsite “classroom” is one of many tiyulim, or fieldtrips, the group of sophomores, juniors, and seniors is experiencing this fall. They are the inaugural full-semester class participating in the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) program, based in newly built dorms at the Eshel Hanasi agricultural school in the Negev.

AMHSI, an unaffiliated pluralistic institution, has been around since 1972, offering six- and eight-week sessions throughout the year near Tel Aviv in Hod Hasharon at the Mosenson Youth Village. The program has over 20,000 graduates, including popular singer Matisyahu and The Devil Wears Prada author Lauren Weisberger, as well as numerous rabbis and community leaders.

While there have long been college study abroad choices and a recent proliferation of gap-year programs in Israel, not to mention summer youth group trips, AMHSI is just the third organization to offer a high school semester option.

The philosophy of AMHSI is to offer high school students chronological experiential learning in Israel. The curriculum includes a Core course covering Jewish history from the bible on, and students travel to the places they learn about.

Isaacs, who taught Core in the eight-week program, has been brought in to head the new semester program. “Investing in the Negev is investing in the future of Israel,” he says. “The semester offers much more, things two months can’t offer. I think the kids feel that they are actively involved in building the program with us.”

“They call us guinea pigs,” laughs Isaac Tarlin, a sophomore from Sharon, Mass.

This is Rebekah Davis’s first time in Israel; her mother attended the eight-week program in the 1980s. “She’d always talk about this trip and how great it was,” she says. The sophomore from Miami hadn’t gone to Hebrew school, “So everything in Core is new for me.”

Leana Silverberg, a junior who attends a day school in New Jersey, had been to Israel before, “But not on such an educational level,” she says. “At school, we’re learning about Tanach, but I wanted to live it, not just learn it.”

Rabbi Morris Kipper and his wife Lenore of Coral Gables, Fla., started AMHSI in 1972. A decade later, third-generation developer Stephen Muss was looking for a way to honor his late father, Alexander. “I never went to college,” Muss says, “I barely got out of high school. I’m kind of proud that I’m involved in this superior educational program. It’s just been an extraordinary opportunity for me to help Israel.”

Muss, 84, has big plans to expand the scope of AMHSI. “I have a dream, a hope, a prayer to have 5,000 teenagers come to AMHSI from all over the Diaspora every year,” Muss says. “Jewish continuity depends on Jewish teenagers from all over the world having a meaningful experience in Israel, in a meaningful educational program.”

By LISE STERN / JNS.org