Covid was the unlikely catalyst for an impactful summer in Israel for Aiden Krumerman of Tenafly and Kate Feiner of Ridgewood.
The two were among 300 teenagers from across the United States who spent seven weeks at Jewish National Fund-USA’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel, a pluralistic international school in the Tel Aviv suburb of Hod Hasharon.
Aiden explained that the pandemic prevented his family’s usual visit to their Israeli relatives last summer. And when he realized this year’s visit also would be canceled, the 16-year-old rising junior at Tenafly High School looked for alternatives.
“I wanted to go to Israel and do something fun,” he said. “My friend went to Alexander Muss for a semester and told me what a great time he had, so I went to their website and saw they had great summer programs.”
He chose a new track, Your Way Israel, that focuses on the entrepreneurship aspect of the Startup Nation. He and classmates from Florida, California, Georgia, and Massachusetts had sessions with guest speakers from various companies, in addition to classes in Jewish and Israeli history.
“I have a much larger, deeper appreciation for the history of Israel and learning about Judaism as a whole,” Aiden said.
“I learned Bible stories I didn’t hear in Hebrew school. And once we heard these stories, we visited the places where they happened. That made it an immersive experience.”
Organized trips, some just for fun, took Aiden to parts of Israel he had never seen before. A weekend in Tel Aviv was one of the highlights for him. A scavenger hunt in the Neveh Tzedek neighborhood purposefully brought the teens in contact with local shopkeepers and passersby.
“We had to ask people if they knew the history of the place they were in, and even with the language barrier, talking to Israelis showed they were really nice people and very accepting of tourists,” Aiden said. “Observing life in Tel Aviv made me possibly want to live there in the future. I’d never thought about that possibility before.”
Despite having spent most summers of his life with relatives in northern Israel, he said, “I really see Israel in a completely new way.”
In the area of health and safety, Aiden added, “They did a great job of handling covid. Everything was super organized, and the testing processes were efficient. It never really impacted us.”
For most of the students at Alexander Muss, living in a dorm is a new experience foreshadowing their college years away from home.
Kate, however, is accustomed to boarding; she is a student the Lawrenceville School in Mercer County.
For this 17-year-old rising senior, the novelty was being in Israel. She’d visited just once before, for a family vacation celebrating her bat mitzvah at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff. “I never imagined I would end up in Israel for any significant period of time in my life,” Kate said.
“But last year, my sister Amelia was supposed to be a freshman in college and instead took a gap year because of covid. We have a family friend involved in JNF, and he told her, ‘You should totally go to Israel.’ She went to Alexander Muss for a semester and she loved it.”
Kate was one of 225 students who chose the Foundations Israel track. One of her roommates, it turns out, lives not far from Kate’s boarding school. The others were from Boston and Chicago. “We all got very close,” she said.
Kate’s group spent four hours a day – except on trip days — learning about the long arc of Jewish history and its relevance to their lives.
“In one class, the teacher said, ‘If your kid suffered an anti-Semitic hate crime and wanted to convert, how would you explain what is special about Judaism?’” Kate reported. “A discussion ensued about what Judaism meant to us, about its focus on community and the classic Jewish idea that you are carrying on this tradition of suffering and then transcending and overcoming and surviving.
“I think it’s important to be challenged; I always felt Judaism was special, but I didn’t know why. We spent two days of class tackling that question. It added a deeper meaning to my own practice of Judaism.
“A lot of days we talked about Jewish values. In my very liberal education in the United States, discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have always been very slanted, and it was interesting to learn about it from the other side.”
Like Aiden, she particularly enjoyed the stay in Tel Aviv. “It was fun to see the secular side of Shabbat in Israel,” Kate said. “A lot of Western teenage Jews have this image of Israel as a bunch of Orthodox Jews. That is not the case in Hod Hasharon or Tel Aviv.”
On a trip to the Nachal Oz army base, she and her friends spoke with a female soldier whose task is to keep an eye on the volatile Gaza Strip. “She was 19 or 20, and she said her job is no big deal; it was crazy to see how normal it felt for her.”
Kate is slated to be president of her school’s Jewish Student Organization in the coming year, on a campus where just a handful of the 800 students identify as Jewish.
“I’m bringing a greater understanding of what Judaism means to me and that will make me more passionate and dedicated to my work with the JSO,” she said.
“Because of my summer program, I now have an amazing Jewish community across the United States that I feel very connected to, and it’s the first Jewish community I built myself,” she added. “That is something really powerful.”