NAALE ELITE ACADEMY

LET MY PEOPLE KNOW

Most of the 17,000 Naale alumni, who came to Israel as teens from 64 different countries and spent their high school years in Israel, integrated well into Israeli society. They even include cancer researchers, start-up founders and an Air Force colonel

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Naale – an acronym in Hebrew for Youth Coming Before Parents – is a co-program of the Israeli Ministry of Education, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Society for Advancement of Education. Naale Elite Academy marked its 25th anniversary last year, but its origins are in the late 1960s, when the gates of the Soviet Union were tightly sealed. Behind those gates lived an unknown number of Jewish youngsters – and a Tel Aviv born teenager could not stop thinking about them.

Successful from the start

“It was clear that their Jewish survival was in danger,” says the then-teenager, Yeshayahu Yechieli, director of Naale. “I saw a frightening parallel between them and the Jewish children of Nazi Europe. Too little was done to save those European children, and 1.5 million died. Think how different our world would be had they lived! Would this population, too, be lost to the Jewish people, because we did too little?”

Naale was launched in 1992, targeting Jewish youngsters from the 15 former Soviet republics, and lost little time proving itself. “Within a decade, it was so successful that the government of Israel decided to open it to Jewish teens worldwide,” says Yechieli. “A hundred youngsters from Argentina signed up, followed by high-schoolers from other Latin American countries, then from Europe. Most recently, with Naale evolving and adapting to today’s needs, kids are coming in growing numbers from North America, England, South Africa and even a few from the Far East.”

Naale brings 9th and 10th graders to Israel for their last three or four years of high school. It places them in one of 26 residential schools that are carefully chosen according to the highest educational standards. (Parents choose between secular, religious or haredi streams.) Initially, the students are grouped and tutored in their native languages – English, Russian, France, Spanish or Portuguese – and receive an intensive one-year Hebrew immersion program. By 11th grade, students already have a good level of Hebrew that allows them to integrate into the school’s regular classes in some of the subjects. Over 90% matriculate, earning an internationally recognized high school diploma that enables them later on to apply for top colleges and universities in Israel and around the world. The program’s cost – including tuition, full room and board, health insurance and more – is met by the Israeli Ministry of Education. Even the flight to Israel is taken care of by the Jewish Agency, with additional benefits for FSU and South American students.

During weekends and vacations, Naale students who have no family or relatives in Israel are matched with host-families, with whom many remain in touch for years. “My family ‘hosted’ a 15-year-old from Armenia,” says Yechieli. “He stayed in Israel after high school, and his mother moved here to join him. We helped her find an apartment and a job – and, sadly, helped her through her final illness. Some years later, my wife and I stood with her son under his chuppa in Jerusalem.”

The fate of young Jews

Looking back, Yechieli sees everything in his life leading toward Naale. A child of a Holocaust survivor, he is named for his father’s murdered brother, “so I grew up knowing how easily we can lose people,” he says. It this knowledge that urged him toward education and community: he was active in Bnei Akiva, a founder-member of Alon Shvut, and spent two years in London as a shaliach, heading all of the Jewish Agency’s and Bnei Akiva’s European emissaries. Back in Israel, he directed a community center and taught a well-attended matriculation elective on Jewish Thought in Jerusalem’s prestigious – and secular – Mae Boyar High School.

The young Jews trapped inside the Soviet Union, however, remained his obsession.  He helped establish Shlach Et Ami (Let My People Go) and, returning to Israel from London, joined a small organization with a big name – “Yeladim – Educational Projects in Memory of Children Who Died in the Holocaust” – insisting that its focus be Jewish youngsters in Warsaw Pact countries. Hungary proved biddable, and this was where they began, bringing groups of Jewish mid-teens to Israel, training them and returning them to Hungary to seed Jewish youth movements.

It was through this organization that Yechieli was invited to Moscow for an international conference on The Historical Fates of the Jews in Russia and the USSR.  It was December 1989 and the Iron Curtain was rusting. “We proposed extending our Hungarian project – bringing 15- and 16-year-olds to Israel for three to four months, training them as youth counselors, and sending them back to establish Jewish youth movements,” says Yechieli. “The proposal was accepted. One of the first 18-year-olds who became active was from a secular Jewish family in Kharkiv. As an adult, he moved to Israel. Today, we know him as Ze’ev Elkin, Knesset member, Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage, and candidate for mayor of Jerusalem.”

From the Moscow conference, Yechieli went to Riga in Latvia, where he met a group of disappointed 10th-graders. “Their study-trip to Israel had been cancelled because of lack of funds,” he says. “We stepped in, and brought them to Kibbutz Yavneh’s high school. When their three months there ended, they refused to go home! As we weren’t in the kidnapping business, we persuaded them to return to Riga and get their parents’ permission to finish high school in Israel. Most of them received it and came back.”

The unsought experience with the Riga group had far-reaching consequences. “A year later, we heard that the Education Ministry is planning to bring a lot of Jewish youngsters from the former USSR to study in Israel,” says Yechieli. “We told the late Minister Zevulun Hammer: ‘We’re the ones to do this! We have experience. Remember the Riga group!’ We got the job to bring a pilot project of 500 students. That was the birth of Naale.”

There were still hurdles to clear. “Three years is too long!” said the doubters. “Make it a year, with an option to stay.” Yechieli rejected this as wasted time and money. “A year meant that youngsters would return to graduate in their home countries, and therefore have to study its curriculum when they were in Israel – Russian geography, Ukrainian history... It had to be three years.”  Three years would also serve to screen applicants, he believed. “We wanted youngsters who were committed, not looking for a free year or a long ‘summer camp.’” 

From all over the world

The first group, comprising 336 10th-graders, arrived in the Fall of 1992.  The following year, there were 750. Over 90 percent, then as now, stayed for the full three years and successfully matriculated. 

“The doubters spoke up again, when we made the program international, claiming that no one outside the former USSR would come,” says Yechieli. “But come they did. It’s been 15 years since then, and, at the start of the academic year, we have staff members at Ben Gurion Airport around the clock.”  

On September 3, 2018, for example, 216 Naale youngsters touched down on flights originating in Toulouse, Belgrade, New York, Chicago, Miami, Bucharest, Kazakhstan, Los Angeles, Bolivia, Istanbul, Rome, Moscow, Berlin, London, Amsterdam, Zurich, Paris, Tbilisi, Mexico City, Odessa and San Paulo. Some 700 new Naale students from 45 countries are starting 9th or 10th grade this year. Another 1,300 moving up into 10th, 11th and 12th grades – altogether 2,000 students.

The world has changed in Naale’s 25 years, and the program has changed with it. Yechieli believes that much of its future is in North America. “Outside the big cities, in smaller communities, Jewish high schools are not always available,” he says. “Where they’re available, their cost can be prohibitive for some families, which makes a program such as Naale very attractive. It enables youngsters to know Israel from the inside – its people, its language, its pulse – and gives them an experience that can’t be found anywhere else. In additions growing up in a boarding setting creates bonds between friends that lasts for a lifetime.”

He pauses. “But I don’t really need to sell Naale,” he says. “It sells itself; but more families and Jewish organizations, especially in Education, should know about us. Let my people know, and then maybe more will come.”

To learn more about the Naale Elite Academy – Free High School in Israel, visit www.naale-elite-academy.com.

GA participants who would like to visit a school that hosts Naale students from North America are invited to contact Chaim Meyers: chaim.me@naale.org.il