It’s not always easy to pack one’s bags, travel to a new country and leave family and friends behind. This is especially true when you’re a teenager leaving home for the very first time.
For Naale Elite Academy students, leaving the nest may be bittersweet, but in doing so, they find themselves in a home away from home in Israel.
Not every goodbye was a tearjerker, though. Zack Gitlin, 15, from Fair Lawn, New Jersey said that while it was sad to bid farewell to his parents, he is ready to begin his Naale journey and be independent.
Zack was one of the 700 students who arrived at Ben Gurion last week to begin their year at the cultural and experiential education co-ed Jewish high school in Israel. These students are set for an adventure of a lifetime as they enroll in a network of campuses across the country and receive a free scholarship that includes room and learning Hebrew as well as your standard core curriculum like Math, Science and English.
“It has always been a dream of mine to live in Israel. It still feels like a dream, to be honest,” Gitlin said. “There are plenty of reasons to love Israel, but I grew up knowing that Israel is the place for me – it’s my country. I’m proud of Israel. It’s amazing what it’s done in such a short period of time.”
But as Yeshayahu Yechieli, Naale’s director explains, beginning at Naale is the start of a new era in their young lives.
“This isn’t just starting a new year, but chapter in your life. When you call your parents, tell them, ‘Thank you,’” he said giving the new students some sage words of advice.
Yechieli also added that embarking on this unforgettable journey will also be marked with personality-building challenges along the way.
“At Naale, you’ll meet children from all over the world. And learning at Naale is not a one way ticket. Once you leave our doors you’re obligated to achieve something,” he added.
Emmanuel, 16, from Boston is up for that challenge.
“I really wanted to try something new. My parents came to Israel when they were young and I wanted to do the same thing. I see this year as an excellent opportunity to broaden my horizons. I’ve lived a very straightforward life and now I want to see more of the world,” he said.
In addition to learning Hebrew and understanding the Israeli way of life, many of the students are eager to expand their social circle this year.
And, for some, making friends happened before they even stepped on Israeli soil.
Take Ilana Goldman San Francisco and Hedi Farkas from New Jersey. The two hadn’t even met before they boarded the plane, but by the time wheel’s touched down they realized they quite possibly made a friend for life.
“I want to make friends!” Goldman exclaimed with Farkas by her side when asked what she hoped to get out of her Naale experience.
“We only just met 10 hours ago, but now we’re friends. It’s amazing,” Farkas said.
Farkas also acknowledged that although leaving home was rough, she is expecting that her “once in a lifetime” Naale experience will make it all worth it.
“Naale seemed like a really good program. It felt it was very important for me as a Jew to experience Israel to the fullest,” she said.
But ultimately, for many students – like 15-year-old Torontonian Galit Collins – attending Naale is just as natural as coming home.
“Being here feels like home. For 2,000 years we were living in exile and now there’s a place for us to be where we’re free,” said Collins.