Israeli program in U.S. takes students on history ride

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CHICAGO — A Latin School student stands in the middle of the classroom. Guest lecturer Yossi Katz shouts, "Look at that face. She's sickly. She's tired. We have to help." Katz runs over to her and picks her up, carrying her over his shoulder. She is rescued.

Katz, lecturing on behalf of the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, where he teaches, is demonstrating a lesson on the Haganah's efforts to rescue immigrants coming into Israel's ports after World War II.

He tells the students that the rescued girl will remember what happened on that day at the beach in 1946, when freedom fighters from Israel's pre-state army fought to rescue their people. "She didn't just read about it in a book. She relived it," he says.

Of course, the lesson will have a greater impact in the waters of Haifa's beaches than in a Chicago classroom. Thus Katz's lecture, in which he urges the teens to come to Israel to learn 4,000 years of history.

"We're about taking the history of Israel…and ideals from Jewish history and seeing how they apply to our own lives," he says.

Founded in 1972, the nonprofit Israeli school conducts five eight-week programs per year for high school juniors and seniors. Each session attracts 120 students from across the country, including 25 to 30 annually from the Chicago area, according to Lori Neiberg, Midwest regional director of admissions.

To help students keep pace with their schoolwork back home, admissions officials from the Israeli school, which is accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, meet with the U.S. schools to develop a tutorial program. Muss students meet with Israeli tutors three days a week.

Still, why would U.S. high schools permit students to leave their regular school for two months?

"We have a very student-centered philosophy," says Regina Manley, a guidance counselor at Highland Park High School, outside Chicago. "When a student or family comes to us and says they want to have that experience, we try to help," as long as nothing in the classroom suffers. Nothing has for the three students who attended the Muss program during Manley's tenure at Highland Park: "They did well there, and when they came back, they did well here," she says.

Joe Perica, a guidance counselor at Glenbrook South High School, also in the Chicago area, seconds the notion that the primary concern for schools is that students be able to maintain their schoolwork. In that regard, Muss' successful track record sells the program. "It's such a responsible program. [Teachers] know the students won't fall behind in their work," says Perica.

During a speech at Latin School three weeks before Chanukah, Katz tells the story of how Judah Maccabee's 3,000 soldiers defeated 47,000 Greek soldiers. He then cites the example of Avigdor Kahalani, the tank commander left with the duty of staving off 710 Syrian tanks in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, despite having only eight tanks and 40 shells remaining. Katz explains that Kahalani and his men pushed the Arabs into a retreat by hitting the first 40 Syrian tanks, scaring the next line.

Where did Kahalani's men get the courage? History, Katz answers.

"Israelis soldiers are trained and sworn in at Masada; Masada shall not fall again. [What kept them going] was not something they learned in the army, but something they learned in history."

Katz also cites the example of Trevor's Campaign for the Homeless, which began when 11-year-old Trevor Ferrell collected food and money for the needy.

"These stories we teach at [Muss] aren't just to teach the history of an ancient people," Katz tells the students, "but also helps us to look around and find out that each and every one of us can be a hero."