Humans of Heller High: What nine teens learned on an immersive program in Israel

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Adina Golbus, 17, 11th grade, from San Rafael, California. (Zoe Klevens)

BY ZOE KLEVENS , JTA

This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with teens across the world to report on issues that impact their lives.

(JTA) — After nearly two years of hybrid learning at school, some students couldn’t wait to get back in the classroom full-time. For some teens that meant flying thousands of miles to attend the immersive program at Heller High School in Israel in the Fall of 2022.

This fall, 18 students left home to experience life as students in Israel. Living together, taking classes as a group, and going on field trips with each other, students have to learn how to experience life on their own away from home in addition to a general studies class load that includes Jewish history and Hebrew.

Heller was created to give “Reform youth an opportunity to strengthen through learning and experience, their connection to Judaism, the Jewish people, and the Jewish state,” said David Solomon, associate principal. The curriculum focuses on field trips and immersion learning. Heller High takes place in Israel. The fall semester lasts from August through December and the spring semester lasts from January through May. Students that are Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors can attend Heller and can stay from a semester up to a year.

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In this photo gallery, students talk about their experiences and struggles with the program along with how they are coping with the changes around them.

Changing it up

Flora Pelton, left, 15, 10th grade, from Falls Church, Virginia. (Courtesy of Flora Pelton)

“Before this semester, everything in my life was very familiar; I had lived in the same house, gone to the same schools, and been a member of the same congregation my whole life. Israel was a way for me to get new experiences outside of a small-town American lifestyle. I have become friends with so many new people from different places around the world. I enjoy being able to go to school but still go on so many trips and adventures. I learned how to be independent, take care of myself, and get to know people I have never met before. We were all kind of thrown into this experience and so we had to learn how to do all of these things on our own. It has opened my mind to knowing that I will have to do things like this in the future. It has moved me because I know that I can do so much more than I thought I could. Being in Israel will change who I am now because I have learned to be more aware of others. We have to be with each other at all times and so respecting and learning others’ needs is super important. For example, if my roommate wants to go to bed, I have to be quiet or find somewhere else. I have enjoyed swimming in Sachne [a nature spot in the lower Galilee] the most. It was during a full day field trip and we got to swim as it is the last time we can swim until summer. We all jumped in and were terrified of the fish in the water. The experiences have brought me closer to everyone around me.” — Flora Pelton

Connected

Eitan Hefer, 15, 10th grade, in Hudsonville, Michigan. (Courtesy of Eitan Heffer)

“I love being able to have fun with Jews my age. I am able to surround myself with people that have similar interests and ideas as me. I feel more connected and comfortable with these people than with most of my friends at home because you are with the people here all day, everyday. I will be a lot more mature and be able to focus and do my homework without being asked [when I return home]. I will also be able to advocate for myself a lot more. I have a lot more fun here versus school at home because I can have more one-on-one with my roommates. Being in Heller High has taught me to manage my time and know when I need to focus on myself versus the people around me. This experience has changed my outlook on life because it has taught me to make the most of each moment. ” — Eitan Hefer

New View

Lena Schapiro, 16, 11th grade, from Rancho Cucamonga, California. (Zoe Klevens)

“I heard about Heller High from a friend. My parents thought it would be a great opportunity, and we didn’t know anyone that had studied abroad as a high school student. I decided to do it because, at home, I wasn’t feeling very Jewish. My school has no Jews. I was looking for a connection to other Jews and my Jewish identity in Israel. I expected to observe Judaism more often here and it is true compared to my life at home. An experience I’ll remember most was we went into the caves at Bar Kochva and sang the Shema and extended every word. It was so spiritual, and it felt so good at that moment. It felt like I was ascending with the echoing voices. We were all in harmony both out loud, but also in our souls. This experience has given me a whole new mindset about the world. I feel more responsibility through community service, engaging with Israelis that I have never met, and being away from home. Now that I have been able to surround myself with other Jews, I can feel confident in my Jewish identity when returning home. It opened my eyes, like when we learned to clean out plates with dirt. It opened my mind up to the fact that you can clean something dirty with something even dirtier. It was something I would never have believed worked, but although it seems absurd, it was so effective. It’s taking something you’d never believed and turned it into something so easy. I can apply this to my Jewish life at home by trying new things that might seem weird to others.” — Lena Schapiro

Reminded of home

Adina Golbus, 17, 11th grade, from San Rafael, California. (Zoe Klevens)

“Raticus is this toy rat; he’s not quite a stuffed animal, but he looks realistic and special to me. It was this joke between my friends and me back home, and I ended up bringing it with me. I created this Instagram account called raticus.inisrael. On my first day in the airport, I knew these kids in the airport were going to think I was the weirdest person in the world or have similar humor. It made my heart happy when everyone thought it was super funny. Now wherever we go, I try to bring Raticus to all the significant places we go. He has become a mascot for our group. He has become a special thing. I share them with my parents. Masada was a challenging mountain to climb, and having Raticus there made it easier, knowing I could take him to the top and get sunset pictures. He helped to change the mood.” — Adina Golbus

Together

Sylvia Kassoff, 16, 11th grade, from Jackson, Mississippi. (Zoe Klevens)

“After going to Israel with NFTY this summer, I knew I wanted to return. I was unhappy with my home school because I felt as though I wasn’t getting a very good education. My friend from home had told me that ‘being around other Jewish people was good for me.’ That really stuck with me and made me want to come to Israel again. The cultural shift from Jackson, Mississippi to Israel is definitely large. At home, there is a lot of Southern hospitality where everyone is kind to everyone. Here, people are kind, but it is definitely different because people display their kindness differently. A lot of the time people don’t really smile on the street that much, but many give to charity and in general people are a lot more willing to be socially active here versus at home.

“My happiest moment here was when we went to the Mediterranean sea and hung out on a rock. It was directly after we finished Yam le Yam (Sea to Sea) where we hiked from the Kinneret to the Mediterranean sea. Everyone was exhausted and we got to unwind and be together. I realized that these are the people I am going to be spending four months of my life with and I really appreciated that. While the school day is a lot longer, the breaks in between learning are helpful. The content is much more interesting and easier to follow. I have learned that I want to find a community and find people that make me feel comfortable. In Israel, I have made my own community of so many other Jewish teens. I am a little worried to go back to Jackson because I know it will be a huge adjustment. I have to go back to school less than a week after I get home from Israel. I think once I get back I will notice a big difference between my friends and me. I am excited to see what the world has to offer when I arrive back home.” — Sylvia Kassoff

Full of possibilities

Anna von Thomsen, bottom left, 16, 11th grade, from Schwerin, Germany. (Courtesy of Anna von Thomsen)

“The bus ride from the airport to Heller High felt like it was so full of possibilities. I didn’t know anyone and was like this is the start. The class sizes are either one-on-one or much smaller than my class sizes at home. It’s different from having a teacher that cares about what I learn. Since I am not American, I have had difficulty socially adapting, but I am working on that. The cultural difference between German and American teens makes it difficult. Trends and humor are both incredibly different. Sarcasm is more subtle in the United States and I have found that a lot of American trends reach Germany a lot later. Germans are generally a lot more blunt whereas Americans tend to dance around subjects. I have adapted by letting my peers shape me and teach me what they find funny. I haven’t stopped believing what I believed before I came here, but I have definitely catered to other people.” — Anna von Thomsen

Connected

Kami Rosenblatt.

Kami Rosenblatt, 16, 11th grade, from Danville, California. (Zoe Klevens)

“The best advice I was given before coming here is that nothing is permanent. I’m trying to make the most of it and live in the moment. I was expecting to be homesick, [but] I was shocked at how comfortable I was by day two. I’ve never been happier. We never really know how our day is going to turn out. It can go from being an 11-hour school day to having some of my favorite memories during or right after school. I also love Israeli dancing. When I am dancing, I feel energized and a kind of kehila (community) that you can not feel anywhere else. During Simchat Torah, we unraveled the Torah and saw the whole thing. We celebrated and danced around it with people we never met before; that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. At home, I only go to school from 8:30 a.m. until 1pm. Here, we go to school from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. It’s draining and long. However, learning Hebrew and the Jewish history class about Israel, the land, the people, the culture, and then just Judaism – the classes are so important to be learning here. It’s immersing us into the culture even more, and it’s the kind of education I would never receive in my life again. My greatest challenge has been learning to adapt to not enough sleep and going all day long without any breaks or stops. I’ve learned not to care about the things I used to care about. I am a lot less uptight.” — Kami Rosenblatt

Tradition

Talia Rapaport, top, 17, 12th grade, from Raleigh, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Talia Rapaport)

“Last year, I attended Alexander Muss High School for a semester. My dad and all of his family had done it. I realized how much Israel means to me and knew I wanted to return to my senior year. I wanted to learn more about the history of Israel, so I could go back and share it with my community. My happiest moment at Heller High was when we made it to the top of Masada and hung an Israel flag together. It was blowing in the wind, and I felt like we had all made it. When we screamed into the mountains ‘Am Yisrael Chai,’ and it screamed back at us, it showed all of the generations and what we are continuing. This gave me a sense of Israeli pride and what we get to be a part of daily. Living on my own here has made me a lot more independent. It is great college prep. I’ve had to start making my own life decisions like choosing when to do my homework or when I want to eat out versus staying in. It is now up to me how I want to practice Shabbat. In Israel, I am trying to stay off my phone on shabbat. At home, I attend Orthodox school; I learn all the religious aspects of being Jewish, the Talmud and Chumash [the Hebrew Bible], and not the history. The hardest thing for me has been learning about reform Judaism; it’s been eye-opening. It has given me a new perspective on what the prayers mean to different people. I learned so many different tunes and melodies to songs along with saying things in English instead of Hebrew. It gives everyone the ability to learn what we are praying about.I never had any background in that. But, I’ve adapted to it and overtime I started doing the reform prayers, instead of how I learned. Everyone has done a good job of including me in services.” — Talia Rapaport

Learning balance

Noa Maccabee, left, 14, 10th grade, from Hood River, Oregon. (Courtesy of Noa Macabee)

“I grew up in a non-Jewish community and struggled with my Jewish identity. Growing up in a small community with no Jews, I didn’t really know how to be Jewish. Being Jewish to me before didn’t really mean anything, but now I know more about the world and the people around me. I have learned more about my religion and others. Now, being Jewish means being me and not having to hide it. I was looking to explore Israeli culture and thought Heller High would help me. I’ve learned to enjoy every moment and take school more seriously. Hiking Sea to Sea with some of my closest friends and being outdoors was amazing. It pushed us because we were tired and exhausted, but we kept going. We discovered a stream after hiking six miles. We were all super hot and sweaty and arrived in this secluded area for lunch. My friend Kami and I decided to go for a brief swim. At that moment, I realized how close I was to nature, and the deep connection I have made with friends is the strongest I have ever had. Being here has taken time to get used to. Balancing school, friends, and living with people all the time – the social aspect can be difficult because of lack of alone time. It was surprising how short of a time this place took to feel like home. This experience has made me a more open person. I have a much better understanding of how the world functions and lives because I have the ability to see how Jews live when they are surrounded by thousands of other Jews.” — Noa Maccabee