It almost sounds too good to be true: an all-expenses paid, three- or four-year high school education in Israel, available to Jewish students from virtually all over the world.
But it is true.
Naale Elite-Academy just may be one of the greatest educational — and most economical — teen experiences that a Pittsburgh Jewish parent has never heard of.
Naale, which is completely funded by the Israeli government, provides motivated Jewish students worldwide with the opportunity to attend high school in Israel, beginning in ninth or 10th grade. Supervised by the Israeli Ministry of Education, all Naale students receive a package of benefits that includes flights, full board, health care, tuition, sightseeing tours and even monthly pocket money. There is only a one-time $600 fee to cover application expenses.
Established in 1992, more than 16,000 high school students from the United States, Europe, the former Soviet Union, South America and South Africa have already taken advantage of the Naale program.
Now, Naale representatives, having launched a chapter in Philadelphia last year, are making a big push to attract more students from Pittsburgh.
Dikla Sity Meir, representative of Naale in Pennsylvania, and Chaim Meyers, director of the organization’s Western World Region, were in the Steel City last week to meet with heads of Jewish schools and get out the word about their program.
“At the moment, only a very small part of the Jewish population knows of the existence of the program,” said Meyers. “But this is an amazing opportunity. Students get a full scholarship for three or four years and an education in Israel. The experience the students get there is very special. And they get to study with students from around the world.”
Mark Edelman, a Pittsburgher who attended Naale from 2004 to 2007, agrees.
“I thought the program was phenomenal,” said Edelman, whose younger sister Naomi is currently attending Naale. “I got to experience another country and another culture. And I never heard of another program that comes with a full scholarship packet that takes care of everything. And you get the experience of a lifetime.”
Naale students choose to study in one of 25 Naale-affiliated day schools, boarding schools, yeshivas or kibbutz regional high schools located throughout Israel. There are six international schools that offer programs in English.
While Edelman attended a boarding school in Hod HaSharon, about 40 minutes north of Tel Aviv, his sister chose to study in Ein Gedi, in a kibbutz-style environment.
Edelman learned about Naale “by chance,” he said, having heard about it from family friends who live in Israel.
“I was planning to go to Israel after high school,” Edelman said. “But when I heard about the full scholarship, I thought it was better to go for high school.”
The program includes an “intense ulpan,” said Meyers, in which students spend about 20 hours a week immersed in Hebrew. By 11th grade, all subjects are taught in Hebrew.
Just two months into his program, Edelman said, he was already beginning to converse in Hebrew.
The opportunity to live and learn with other Jewish students from Sweden, Mexico, Germany, France and the former Soviet Union was invaluable to Edelman, he said.
“You just don’t get that anywhere else.”
There are currently 1,600 students from around the world participating in Naale, according to Meyers.
Prospective students are interviewed and screened at regional sites in the U.S. by Israeli psychologists and are also tested academically to ensure their performance is at the average or above-average level and that the applicants have “a high motivation to come to this program,” Meyers said.
Accepted students reside in Israel on student visas until they are 18 years old.
“Once they are 18, they choose if they want to make aliyah,” Meyers said. “If not, they go back home and continue their higher education there.”
The majority of Naale graduates — about 80 percent — choose to stay in Israel, he said. Some students go home for two or three years, then decide to come back to Israel.
“We have an open program,” Meyers said. “Some students stay one year, then come home. That’s OK. It is a no-strings-attached program. For us, it is OK. They strengthened their connection to Israel and to Judaism and become good ambassadors for the State of Israel.”
Naomi Edelman is learning a lot about what it means to be a Jewish community while she is studying with Naale in Israel.
“I think attending a school in Israel is a great opportunity to see the togetherness and support the Jews of Israel have for each other in hard times,” she said in in an email. “Even though everyone lives such separate lives obviously, and there is a divide, you see how much love Israelis have for each other, and there is such an atmosphere of family here, which I love.”
Israelis constitute about 50 percent of the student population of Naale schools, Meir said, with the Israelis and non-Israelis separated into different dormitories. Most classes are also segregated into those for Israelis and those for non-Israelis, although there are lots of joint extracurricular activities.
“We try to integrate our [non-Israeli] students slowly and safely into the Israeli community,” she said. “The purpose is to integrate them and make them love Israel, so there is the right amount of mixture.”
Edelman’s father, Andrei Eidelman, said the program was good for his son, noting that Mark Edelman did decide to make aliyah and lived in Israel for a few years after graduating from Naale. He left Israel following his military service and now is back in Pittsburgh, at least for the time being.
“The program was beneficial,” said the elder Eidelman. “Mark learned more how to be independent. He had good advisers, and he learned a lot about Israel. He also formed some good friendships.”
For Mark Edelman, the friendships he formed have been paramount.
“Literally, all my friends are from the program, and it has already been 10 years,” Mark Edelman said. “That’s how much of a significant experience it was.”
He hopes that more people will learn about Naale.
“Everybody knows about Birthright, but nobody knows about this,” he said. “And it’s truly a good program.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.