Surrounded by close friends and enriched by challenging classes, Rebecca Hess feels content at her yeshiva high school in Philadelphia.
Her parents boast about the high quality of their daughter’s academic education. They couldn’t have asked for anything more in their child’s schooling, the y said.
But a recent discovery made them question if they could do better.
"I was searching online and found out about the new Yeshivot B’nei Akiva program in Israel for American students," said Rebecca’s mother, Karen. "The program would be able to offer things that she would never get at even the best day school in America."
As hardworking parents of four day school students, Karen and her husband were initially intrigued by the program’s free tuition. But they quickly decided that a tuition break – even in the teeth of a recession – was not a good enough reason to send their child halfway around the world.
"We ultimately decided to apply to the program because it seems like the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams for our children. It offers our daughter the chance to become proficient in Hebrew while developing a close familiarity with and love for the people and land of Israel while she is in high school. It is also an incredible opportunity for her to learn the Tanach [Bible] in the setting where it took place."
The YBA program will open its doors in September to students in the 10th-12th grades. Tuition is free because it is subsidized by the Israeli government, which is also paying for airfare.
The new program comes as day schools are trying desperately to hold on to their students amid the financial pressures brought on by the recession. Some schools have cut or reduced tuition and others are making available greater pools of scholarship money to help financially strapped parents.
The Bnei Akiva program may attract some interest from local day school families, but more than likely it will be a draw mainly to families who are considering aliyah or those who have relatives in Israel.
YBA, which has a network of 63 schools throughout Israel, designed the program in an effort to deepen the connection of American Jews with the Jewish homeland, said co-president of American Friends of YBA, Daniel Edelman.
"The overseas high school program is part of YBA’s commitment to educating intelligent, assertive and passionate religious Zionists," he said.
The new program has already drawn a lot of interest, said Edelman, adding that parlor meetings will be held in homes across the tri-state area in the coming weeks. The school is expecting 25 boys and 25 girls in its initial year.
Program organizers assert that it is the high level of education, rather than the rock-bottom price tag, that should be the school’s main draw.
Rabbi Yoni Mozeson, the program’s director of recruitment and marketing, said that the high school curriculum is designed for those who want the unique experience of learning in Israel while still receiving a high-level, American-style education.
"It’s a tremendous experience your child can only have in Israel," the rabbi said. "The students will learn to love the land of Israel and the people of Israel. They will learn Torah in the land of Israel. We will take them on tours throughout the country. They will also become fluent in Hebrew. And if people save a lot of money, which they will, that’s just an added bonus."
About the school’s secular curriculum, Rabbi Mozeson claimed that "the level of math and science is higher in Israeli schools than here."
The high school program will be run out of two Yeshivot Bnei Akiva dormitory schools: Yeshivat Ohel Shlomo in Beersheva for boys and Ulpanat Segula in Kiryat Motzkin for girls.
Students will begin their coursework in 10th grade with an intensive ulpan (Hebrew language class) so that they will be fully fluent and be able to study alongside Israelis in the regular program.
Rabbi Mozeson knows from firsthand experience that finding the best high school for one’s child can sometimes require a great deal of research.
When the choice of high schools in the tri-state area left his son unimpressed, the Mozesons found that the high school in Beersheva met all of his needs.
"We felt that another option was necessary for a teenager who needs one-on-one attention that you only get in a dorm setting in Israel," said Mozeson, who attended the Beersheva school 30 years ago. "We felt it would be more spiritually affective and we were right."
Sara F., who did not want her full name used for fear of alienating her daughter’s current school, is planning to send her daughter to the YBA program. But her reasons have more to do with convenience than ideology. Her family lives in a small town with a small Jewish community, an hour and a half away from Baltimore. The teenagers have to travel four hours a day by van in order to attend a yeshiva high school in Baltimore.
"For students faced with these limited options, the new Israel high school program opens up a new world," she said. "While the kids do have to live away from home, they are in Israel. Rather than being one of a handful of kids living away from home, there is a full dormitory of students. With the considerable tuition savings, our child can come home for school breaks and we can travel there to see her."
But some educators caution that attending high school thousands of miles from home can pose risks for certain youngsters who are not prepared.
Marvin Schick, a close observer of day schools, praised the new program as "a good idea" but warned that parents and organizers must be careful about who attends the program.
"Sending a 15-year-old can be problematic," said Schick. "Kids are going through a difficult period in terms of identity and finding out about their sexuality. It’s not an easy period of life. Sending them away does not always work out. Even when you send kids during their post-high school year, they can drift during that year. Parents who send their kids to high school in Israel must know that their child is up to this experience. They must know that the child is emotionally secure."
Menachem Bar Shalom, YBA’s executive director, added that parents should assess whether their child can handle the experience before completing an application. The high school program coordinators, he said, will screen applicants to ensure that the students accepted into the program are suited for attending a high school program in Israel, away from their families.
Parents in the tri-state area who have sent their children to high schools in Israel say their offspring enjoyed an educational opportunity that they would have missed in America.
"Attending high school program in Israel was an amazing experience for our daughter," said Ken Abrams of Margate, N.J., whose daughter Elana attends the Ulpana Sarah Herzog in Bnai Brak. "The program is an undiscovered and underutilized gem. They helped her transition beautifully into learning completely in Hebrew. … We would definitely recommend this program for any student who is goal-oriented and self-directed."