Learnings to Last a Lifetime

 
 
Updated 8/2/2022 10:28 AM

A common theme in the adolescent experience is the search for belonging and purpose. Chicago teenager Josie Mandrea solidified her feelings of kinship with the Jewish community this year when she attended Alexander Muss High School in Israel (Muss), Jewish National Fund-USA's flagship college-prep study abroad experience in Israel.

A member of Jewish youth groups and clubs, and having traveled to Israel before, Josie has always been keenly aware that she thrives among people with whom she shares a similar background and value set. For her, Muss was an opportunity to connect with the land of Israel. "I'm not religious," says Josie, "It was more just me wanting to learn more about Israel itself."

 

As part of her preparations, Josie decided to apply to the Dream Israel Teen Travel Initiative. A unique initiative designed to connect teens to Israel, with grants to offset the cost of the trip, Dream Israel gives teens the opportunity to fundraise for projects in Israel in exchange for a grant to fund their study abroad in the Jewish homeland.

Josie chose to raise money for Jewish National Fund-USA's Sderot Indoor Recreation Center, a project she felt might be overlooked. "As important as those (other) causes are," says Josie, "they get a lot of attention a lot of the time." Sderot is a city in the Gaza Envelope under constant threat of deadly rocket fire, so much so that it is regularly unsafe for children to play outside. In 2009, Jewish National Fund-USA revamped a former textile factory into a 21,000 square foot indoor oasis with play structures, a sports field, movie theater, computer lab, snack center, disco, and more - all retrofitted to function as a rocket shelter. Continued fundraising efforts like Josie's through Dream Israel support the ongoing operation of a space where Sderot's kids can play and thrive in safety while their families enjoy peace of mind.

For her fundraising efforts, Josie wrote to her family and friends, gathering small chai ($18) donations and larger gifts alike, ultimately raising over $5,000 for the recreation center. Her fundraising and grant secured, Josie's trip was greenlit, and she prepared to study in Israel for a full 18-week semester at Muss. While her original plans were put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic, Josie eventually boarded a plane to spend the latter half of her sophomore year on the academic and experiential adventure of a lifetime in Israel.

Muss is located in Hod Ha Sharon, 20 minutes from Tel Aviv. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors come from around the globe to study in a new classroom environment, develop a deeper connection with the land and people of Israel, and make friendships that last a lifetime. What most contrasted Josie's experience at an American high school was the closeness and communication in the classroom. With class sizes being much smaller than she was accustomed to, Josie enjoyed a lot of focused learning and bonding with her teachers.

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Josie's learning wasn't limited to inside the classroom. The Muss program also offers incredible field trips - tiyulim - for a unique experiential learning that uses the land of Israel as a living and breathing classroom. For Josie, her most memorable trip was when she and her classmates went on Yam l'Yam, a camping adventure from the Mediterranean Sea to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The students shut their phones off for four 10-hour days of hiking, walking, and resting by the sun and sleeping under the stars. Though Josie joked that, "port-a-potties were a luxury," they still persevered. The reward for this tremendous physical feat was friendship and confidence.

Before her Muss trip, Josie knew she felt an affinity with Israel, but couldn't solidly articulate why. Now, having immersed herself in the Israeli experience, she is confident in her reasons, moved by a collective spirit of people coming together to celebrate and learn about their differences. "It was always joy, and we felt it. You never felt out of place," expressed Josie. She hopes to visit again soon, this time to contribute to Israel, "helping work the land, helping clean the land," she dreams. "Now I want to do right by the land, right by the country."

In honor of its 50th anniversary, Muss is also launching a fundraising campaign for a $10 million endowment fund, safeguarding the institutional belief that the life-changing experience of studying in Israel should be available to beyond those who can afford full tuition. For more information about Muss, visit amhsi.org or contact Michelle Miller at mmiller@jnf.org.

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