Making dreams of living and learning in Israel a reality for South African teens
By Ilan Preskovsky
It may sound like a ludicrous pipe dream, but for South African Jewish teens between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, an opportunity awaits to finish off their high school careers in Israel with the added benefits of a free initial flight to Israel and fully-subsidised tuition, medical aid, room and board, pocket money, and a whole lot more. Naale (a Hebrew acronym meaning “children coming before parents”) is an international programme that, astonishingly, has been around for over a quarter century and has offered Jewish teenagers from across the globe a chance to attend one of a number of prestigious schools in Israel, fully sponsored, for the duration of their high school career.
Created by the Israeli Ministry of Education together with the Jewish Agency, Naale was originally created as a way of getting as many teenage Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The programme was so successful from the start, in fact, that it quickly expanded its remit to include adolescent Jews from across the globe who dream of living and studying in Israel. It has been available in South Africa, too, for years, but has really taken off recently over here.
The Right Stuff
Understandably, Naale doesn’t accept all those who apply to join the programme. And this is about far more than just the inescapable fact that a substantial amount of money is invested in every student. Leaving the comfort and safety of home in your teens to spend three or four years in a foreign country, where the primary language is not English, is decidedly not for everyone. For parents, too, the idea of sending away your kids at such a young age to live in another country is not an easy one. This is why Naale only accepts those teens who are mature enough to thrive away from home for so long and who have the full support of their parents.
Last year, for example, there were all of ten applicants from across the country and only seven of those were selected to go on the programme – and this is a noticeable increase from most of the years that Naale has been running in South Africa. The shift in numbers, incidentally, is in large part due to the appointment of Livnat Katz as South Africa’s Naale representative, whose background in marketing (she is, in fact, the marketing director for the Israel Centre in Johannesburg) has led to a concerted effort to get the word out about this programme to as many South African Jewish teens as possible.
Still, even with this new push, seven students from across South Africa is not what anyone would call a large number. Those whose dreams of studying in Israel are strong enough to embark on so rewarding but undeniably challenging a programme, though, go through a lengthy screening process to see whether they are viable candidates for Naale. To start, their academic records are assessed to make sure they can keep up with the high standard of education in Israel. After-school tutoring is available for those who need it and Naale students are placed in their own specially tailored classes, but it’s still important to make sure that the students are academically disciplined enough to balance their school work with the challenges of settling into their new environments and social systems.
With that in mind, the series of psychological tests given to each applicant are perhaps even more crucial. It’s really not just any teenager who can leave his parents, family, and overall social system behind to, effectively, start anew in Israel. Even though the Naale programme does its best to ensure a smooth transition from the comfort of these students’ South African lives to a more independent existence in Israel, it is a massive shift that requires a very specific psychological profile to manage.
Creating a Home Away From Home
With the screening process completed, the selected students finally head off to their new lives in Israel and the Naale programme is specifically designed to make sure that they have as “soft” a landing as possible.
Before leaving, Livnat Katz works with the students to ensure that they go to the school that is by far the best fit of those offered – and continues to work with the students during the programme to ensure that they have indeed made the correct choice. The eight different schools in question include: yeshiva schools (Amana Yeshiva High School for girls, Shaalvim Yeshiva High School for boys) for those who are looking for a more Torah-intensive experience; more secular schools for those looking for the equivalent of a King David or Hertzlia (Ayanot Youth Village, Mosenson Youth Village), and a co-ed religious school (Dror Elite Academy) for those looking for Yeshiva College-like schooling, but with greater interaction between genders. Naale even offers chabad/chassidish schools (Beit Chana, Beit Chaya Mushka) and one especially high-level school for students that are particularly gifted in maths and the sciences (Nahalal or Anieres: a school so nice they named it twice) that is a feeder into the world-renowned Haifa Technion University.
Regardless of the school, the basics of the Naale programme are the same. During their first year, all students are required to attend eighteen hours per week of Ulpan to learn Hebrew, during which time lessons are given in English before transitioning to Hebrew as students increasingly become comfortable with the language. By the end of the first year, most Naale students are practically fluent in Hebrew. All the different schools also offer the same core subjects and the same world-class, internationally recognised diploma upon graduation, but each school offers its own particular extracurricular activities and regular school outings that take students all over Israel.
A State of Independence
Academic adjustment is one thing; social adjustment is quite another. To help ease the students who do not have relatives living in Israel into a life away from their parents and families (though they do remain in constant contact with them thanks to the miracles of technology), they are assigned to host families with whom they spend time on Shabbos, Jewish holidays, and any other time when they’re away from school.
Students on Naale also often come home for all or some of the summer holidays, which in Israel clocks in at two and a half months. During this time, Livnat, who remains in constant contact with all the students, usually arranges reunions to catch up with them in person and takes the opportunity to also introduce new and potential Naale students to those who have already been on the programme.
For all that things are in place to try and minimise homesickness for those on Naale, though, one of the greatest and most important challenges and benefits of the programme is in giving these teenagers a chance at independence unlike anything they would have at home. As current Naale student Gabriel Mervis, who has been part of Naale since September 2016 and is a student at the prestigious Anieres school, puts it: “I feel like I’ve gained a great deal of independence from Naale and feel like the friends I have made here make me feel connected to Jews all around the world.”
This idea is echoed by Bianca Meyorowitz, who joined the programme in January 2016 and will be part of the first Naale group to graduate from Ayanot Youth Village. “Ayanot has taught me how to be independent, responsible, and appreciate the beauty around me. I learned to accept other people’s points of view and bond with strangers to become one crazy family. My friends are my siblings, my mentors, and my strongest critics. It presented me with opportunities I never could’ve dreamed of. I honestly couldn’t have made a better decision.”
Unlike most Naale students, Bianca’s mother actually made Aliyah recently, joining her daughter in Israel for her final year on the programme and fully living up to what Naale stands for. Nonetheless, this hasn’t changed just how independent Bianca has grown over her three years on the programme, or the bonds she formed with her host family and mentors on Naale. “The counsellors are like parents and take care of my every need. I have a host family that I [still] go to even though my mother made Aliyah in September.”
Gabriel and Bianca are just two of the many Jewish teenagers worldwide who have benefited greatly from the Naale programme. It’s certainly not for everyone, but registration is now open for those teenagers between fourteen and sixteen who feel they would be a perfect fit for the next Naale programme and the compulsory screening takes place on one day only in July.
For more information, contact Livnat Katz: 011 645 2574, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org