Daniel Morgan reads a book with his sons, 7-year-old Ori (left) and 8-year-old Tomer (right), in San Mateo; they are temporarily attending Wornick. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Daniel Morgan reads a book with his sons, 7-year-old Ori (left) and 8-year-old Tomer (right), in San Mateo; they are temporarily attending Wornick. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

In search of ‘normal’ amid war, some Israelis are enrolling their kids in Bay Area schools

Updated Dec. 27 at 10:30 a.m.

One Friday morning each month, students, staff and parents from Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School gather to sing and celebrate personal successes. On Nov. 10, all eyes turned to about 20 Israeli children. They had relocated temporarily to the Bay Area since Oct. 7 and were new to the school community.

“We took the opportunity to ask the visiting students to come up front with their parents, and then we could formally welcome them,” said Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, head of the K-8 school in Palo Alto.

Tal Briller, a Peninsula resident and mother of three, was there to introduce her nieces, 5-year-old Or and 9-year-old Tom, cousins whose parents had sent them from northern Israel. Briller also enrolled Or’s 14-year-old brother, Rotem, at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, a short drive from Hausner.

The three children came with their grandparents, and all five are staying with their aunt, uncle and cousins in Menlo Park. The children’s fathers were called up as reservists in the Israel Defense Forces, and their mothers both work long shifts in the medical field.

They are among dozens of Israeli families who turned to connections and relatives in the Bay Area to find a safe haven from the war, and discovered Jewish day schools in every county ready to welcome their children with open arms. Some have stayed a short time, while others have settled in.

Hausner’s leaders “immediately said, you pay what you can,” Briller said of the school’s modified tuition policy for recent Israeli arrivals.

“We didn’t want to require people to go through a whole financial aid process, because it just didn’t seem like that was reasonable or practical,” Lehmann said. Instead, each family was told to pay what they could afford.

The Oct. 7 massacre in Israel and the ensuing war with Hamas upended the daily lives of Israeli families. Many parents were abruptly called to military service, while spouses and children remained home from work and school. Families spent much of their time in their mamad (reinforced safe room) during Hamas rocket attacks. School was put on hold or offered remotely. Some parents began to look for respite that could offer physical and emotional security amid the wartime nightmare.

Family photos in Daniel Morgan’s parents’ house in San Mateo on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Family photos in Daniel Morgan’s parents’ house in San Mateo. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Hausner enrolled more than 25 students from Israel after Oct. 7, the most of any Jewish day school in the Bay Area, according to an informal J. survey. Kehillah Jewish High School enrolled six teens from Israel, waving tuition for the first semester.

Giving financial breaks “allows people who normally cannot afford these types of schools to be included,” Briller said. For her nieces and nephew, public school was not a realistic option because they would have struggled socially and academically. “Their English is not amazing,” she said.

Hausner already has a robust Israeli student population — 40 percent of the student body has at least one Israeli-born parent — and Hebrew-speaking faculty and staff, Lehmann said.

Upon arriving at Hausner, Or, Tom and their aunt were invited to a breakfast to meet other visiting Israeli students, Briller said. The school sent out contact information so Hausner families could welcome their new classmates.

“They really went out of their way to think [of] what can help,” Briller said.

Some students have already gone, and Lehmann anticipates others will head back to Israel this month. The school is now making arrangements for those who decide to stay through the whole school year, as well as for new students who may arrive in January and spend the semester. That would include offering more thorough academic assessments to ensure the children can meet Israel’s educational requirements.

‘Somewhat of a normal life’

Nurit Benninga’s three young children frequently ask when they can go back home. Her answer: “I don’t know.”

After a visit with family in the Bay Area over Sukkot, Benninga’s family got on their flight to Israel on Oct. 7. But during a layover in Germany, they grasped the severity of the attack while learning that Benninga’s husband was being called up by the IDF.

It was impossible for her to find a civilian flight home for the family. So she decided right there that she’d bring her kids back to the Bay Area. From Germany, she contacted South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale about getting her children enrolled. Days later, the family was situated in an Airbnb in Silicon Valley and all three children were going to school.

With her husband away with the army and no reinforced room in their home in Hod Hasharon, northeast of Tel Aviv, Benninga said she plans to stay here with her children indefinitely.

“I wanted to give them somewhat of a normal life and a routine and go to school and play with friends,” she said.

Settling into that routine has been difficult, though, as Benninga has searched for affordable temporary housing. While she and her children all have dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship and don’t require visas, she doesn’t have access to recent paystubs or proof of income to rent an apartment, and Airbnbs are too expensive for long-term housing.

“In eight weeks, I think we’ve moved seven houses altogether,” Benninga said. Eventually they landed a month-to-month rental in Mountain View.

The Israeli Cultural Connection at the Palo Alto JCC, a hub for Israeli resources in Silicon Valley, has been a lifeline during the chaotic adjustment, Benninga said.

A group of Israeli women signed up through the Israeli Cultural Connection’s meals-for-new-moms program to provide Benninga with hot meals, grocery deliveries, clothes and toys.

Meanwhile, SPHDS has made Matan, 1, Maayan, 5, and Yuval, 7, feel extremely comfortable and waived tuition payments, she said. (Matan is in the school’s early childhood program.)

“I feel it’s going on two parallel levels. So on one parallel, they’re very happy,” Benninga said. “They’re making friends.” But outside of school, she said emotions can boil over.

“We miss abba. We want to go home,” they told her on a recent car ride after school. And Yuval had nightmares in the first weeks after the separation from his father.

Benninga has had to deal with the health system, too. Her 1-year-old had a persistent ear infection and skin rash. And without U.S. health insurance, she could not get an appointment with a pediatrician, turning to urgent care instead.

Benninga will begin paying partial tuition this winter and is looking for temporary work to support her family. She has a master’s degree in special education, a subject she teaches in Israel.

‘A smile on their face’

Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City has enrolled 11 visiting Israeli students so far, including Ori and Tomer Morgan, ages 7 and 8.

Their father, Daniel Morgan, a San Mateo native who made aliyah in 2011, and their mother, Hadar, an Israeli native, agonized about whether to relocate temporarily. Even now, more than a month later, they feel guilty about leaving Israel, Daniel Morgan said.

But at the time, emergency sirens and the sounds of rockets were a frequent disturbance in their Tel Aviv neighborhood, going off four to six times a day, he said. School was being held over Zoom, and he and Hadar realized their sons were getting more and more anxious.

“We could see them starting to basically refuse to leave the house,” Morgan said. Fearing the looming threat of Hezbollah in Lebanon and believing that the Israel-Hamas war would not be a short one, the Morgans decided to stay with a family friend in New York for 10 days. Then they traveled to the home of Daniel’s parents in San Mateo, and began looking for a school for their boys.

Hadar and Daniel Morgan help their kids Tomer (center), 8, and Ori (far right), 7, with homework at Daniel’s parents’ home in San Mateo on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Hadar and Daniel Morgan help their kids Tomer (center), 8, and Ori (far right), 7, with homework at Daniel’s parents’ home in San Mateo on Nov. 30. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

“The primary goal at that point was to find a place where the kids could get into school, get back into some sort of a routine and be in a safe and caring environment,” Daniel said. The children, both fully bilingual in English and Hebrew, have found that at Wornick, where the family paid reduced tuition.

“The biggest thing for us is we see them with a smile on their face when we pick them up every day,” Daniel said.

Tomer, in second grade, was given an art kit to take home and decorate the cover of his siddur (prayerbook) with his parents. Ori, in first grade, came home his first week with a goodie bag that included pencils, a note from his class and a ram stuffed animal, Wornick’s mascot. “The kids were just thrilled to have him come in,” said Karen Wagshul, Ori’s teacher.

On the first Friday, Ori was given a challah for Shabbat. “They have friends now here, not just family,” his dad said.

The family was planning to return to Israel sometime in December.

‘They made an instant connection’

Tuvit Rubin’s family has already come and gone from the Bay Area, after a month spent with Rubin’s uncle in Tiburon before returning to Herzliya just before Thanksgiving.

Rubin, like the Morgans, felt that the frequent blare of sirens, remote schooling and the threat of Hezbollah were disrupting the lives of her 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter.

Shortly after coming to Marin County, Rubin enrolled her daughter in Brandeis Marin in late October. She was amazed to learn the K-8 school in San Rafael had waived tuition payments.

“They didn’t want anything at all. …They wouldn’t hear about it,” Rubin said, adding that she was immediately immersed in all school communications, including a parent WhatsApp group.

Even before her daughter’s first day, she had already enjoyed a playdate with a Novato classmate whose parents are Israeli.

“They hit it off right away,” Rubin said. “They hugged all the time, and they didn’t want to let go. They made an instant connection.”

Shortly after Rubin’s daughter started school, a group of parents presented the family with a bag full of toys for both children, including Legos, Play-Doh and dolls.

“The kids were ecstatic,” Rubin said. “The community is just unbelievable.”

Before returning to Israel, Rubin bought chocolates for her daughter’s teachers and made a donation to the school to thank everyone for their kindness.

Now home in Israel, Rubin said she feels the threats to her family are not as grave as they were at the war’s start. Sirens aren’t as frequent, and schools have returned to in-person classes. Rubin’s daughter, meanwhile, has been requesting video calls with her new friend in Novato.

Brandeis Marin enrolled three Israeli students in the weeks prior to Thanksgiving and an additional four after the holiday.

“We continue to receive calls, almost daily, and will do our best to support those that wish to join our community or assist in finding preschools or high schools as appropriate,” Pamela Welner, director of enrollment management at Brandeis Marin, said in an email to J.

‘Semblance of routine’

Oakland Hebrew Day School had one student join for three weeks before returning to Israel in mid-November. The school has received a few additional inquiries from visiting families since then,, according to Tania Schweig, head of school. The K-8 Brandeis School of San Francisco has not hosted any visiting students, but one family in Israel is considering temporarily relocating to the Bay Area and enrolling their child, according to head of school Dan Glass. S.F.’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay has added three students from Israel. Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette has also welcomed several visiting Israeli students and waived tuition fees for them.

In Los Gatos, Yavneh Day School has welcomed 15 students from Israel, according to Lauren Carlinsky, director of admissions at the K-8 school. More are expected to arrive in January.

“Yavneh is providing school for families through June 2024 as space allows and asking families to pay what they can. We are fundraising the rest to help offset the cost,” Carlinsky said in an email sent to J. in late November.

High school students temporarily enrolled at Kehillah in Palo Alto have a customized schedule of classes based on their English-language skills and are graded on a pass/fail basis.

“The idea is to give them some semblance of routine in the midst of all this chaos,” said Dave Weiner, Kehillah’s director of admissions and enrollment management.

Ido Raveh and Yoni Raveh, 16-year-old twins in 11th grade, arrived at Kehillah in mid-November. Their father, who works for a tech company, already had a business trip scheduled in the Bay Area and brought his wife and sons along. The twins said they were tired of school on Zoom in Israel and are glad to be in a physical classroom for the month or so they plan to stay.

Ori Morgan, 7, works on math homework at his grandparents’ home in San Mateo on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Ori Morgan, 7, works on his math homework from Wornick Jewish Day School. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

“The whole school is very prepared for us, and the teachers are amazing,” Ido said.

Noya Peleg came with her family in October from Ness Ziona, near Rishon LeZion. Joining 11th grade at Kehillah felt like coming back to a second home, she said. Peleg and her family lived in Silicon Valley eight years ago when her father worked for a tech company. She went through kindergarten, first and second grades at Hausner before the family returned to Israel. She said her former Hausner classmates, now at Kehillah, immediately put her at ease.

While Peleg is fluent in English, her 6-year-old sister, who is enrolled at Hausner, only speaks Hebrew. Their older brother is serving in the IDF.

Lehmann, head of Hausner, said permanent students are getting as much out of the experience as their temporary classmates.

“I think the feeling that our students have is that this is a way for us to contribute, and it’s such a personal way to do it,” he said. On top of that, “it’s just a great lesson in what it means to be a part of the Jewish people and help where our help is needed.”

Updated: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Tal Briller’s children as Hausner students, and misidentified her nieces and nephew as siblings rather than cousins.

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.