Just after Passover last year, my daughter, Shaina, a student at URJ Heller High at the time, returned from her home-stay with an Israeli family. Shaina described how she and the other teens stayed up late and talked about their plans after high school. The Israelis’ discussion of preparing to go into the army stood in sharp contrast to the North American teens preparing for college.
They spent hours sharing their perspectives on life; they explored their commonalities, their differences, their hopes and aspirations. During this late-night conversation, a seed was planted for Shaina that helped her begin to think about own future and home in on what she might study in college, ultimately deciding on international affairs because of its focus on what brings people together and creates community.
Indeed, the URJ Heller High semester abroad integrates academic, social, and emotional learning, providing students with skills, knowledge, and insights – all grounded in Jewish values – to carry them into the college selection process and beyond. It also transforms individuals’ Jewish identities in powerful ways.
Here are four things the semester abroad offered Shaina that helped prepare her for the future.
1. Experiential Learning
URJ Heller High students engage in learning intellectually, creatively, emotionally, socially, and physically. Most important, they develop a true love of learning through experiences outside traditional academic settings. Shaina describes one of her group’s first tiyyulim (excursions) this way: “We were at Tel Gezer, a beautiful spot with rolling hills where you could see the horizon. I remember Josh (her teacher) saying, “Welcome to your classroom!”
2. Time to Reflect
As educator and philosopher John Dewey teaches, “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on the experience.” Indeed, after many of the tiyyulim, students journal about their experience, recording thoughts, reflections, ideas, feelings, and what they learned. This activity solidifies new knowledge, deepens critical thinking skills, and offers personal insights. Reflection is where real learning happens.
3. New Levels of Self-Awareness
Learning to balance their physical, emotional, social, and spiritual lives, students gain new levels of self-awareness. Because they must manage their own behaviors and emotions, they acquire emotional resilience as well, learning to get along with others who function differently in the world than they do, from their roommates to the Israelis with whom they interact. Living and studying in this environment helps them better understand their own needs and how to advocate for themselves.
4. Relationships Based on Jewish Values
Students’ relationships – with classmates, peers, teachers, staff, and the people of Israel – are built on a foundation of Jewish values. Through experience, they discover the value of group study and together work to enhance their learning. In addition, the service learning component of the program not only helps students build relationships through volunteer projects beyond class hours, but also instills in them a commitment to community and g’milut chasadim (acts of loving kindness).
When Shaina returned from her semester abroad, she was empowered with Jewish and secular academic skills acquired in a robust intellectual experience that included small classes, an ulpan (a class for intensive study of Hebrew) and an extremely comprehensive Jewish history class, a “crown jewel” of the program. Her heightened Jewish literacy and greater connection to the Jewish people, in turn, strengthened her Jewish identity. As an educator and a parent, I’m sure Shaina’s knowledge and Jewish identity together with her newfound social and emotional know-how will help her shape the future and navigate adult life with confidence and self-reliance.
Since 1961, thousands of teenagers have spent a semester in Israel on URJ Heller High (formerly NFTY-EIE), the Reform Movement’s most intense and powerful Jewish living and learning experience.