For many families in the United States, a private education is financially beyond reach. Jewish day schools in particular can be notoriously expensive, although many do offer scholarships.
But through a program called the Naale Elite Academy, Jewish students from around the world are provided a free high school education, provided they are willing to attend public boarding school in Israel.
“Our main obstacle is that most of the Jewish communities around North America are not aware of the program; they don’t know that it exists,” said Chaim Meyers, director of Naale’s Western World Region. “That is what we are trying to do. As my boss likes to say, ‘Let my people know.’”
Meyers and other Naale officials visited the JT office on Feb. 6. During their North American trip, they visited current families, prospective families and Jewish communal leaders in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Austin, Texas and Miami, as well as Canadian cities Calgary and Edmonton.
The program started in 1992, when Israeli officials were trying to educate students from the former Soviet Union whose families weren’t able to make aliyah. Sending teachers there did not work, so it was decided that bringing students to Israel to be educated would be more prudent. Naale stands for “noar oleh lifney horim” meaning “children immigrate before their parents.”
Today, Naale is geared toward Jewish children from around the world, with students from about 50 countries enrolled. The program has approximately 1,700 students and more than 17,000 graduates to date. It also boasts a 90 percent retention rate of students who successfully earn their Israeli matriculation certificate, which is recognized at universities worldwide.
“The opportunity that Naale offers almost borders on the outrageous,” said Simeon Pollock, who serves as the Naale ambassador in Maryland and has two children in the program. “It’s that amazing. I thought, ‘It can’t be true, free high school? And for a religious kid?’ They mentioned something on the website about Orthodox schools; they have three for religious children. It was something we had to talk about because it was religious and free, compared with the cost of a religious education in America.”
While the religious schools appealed to the Pollock family, Naale is not exclusively religious. Rather, it serves as an umbrella program and partners with 25 different schools around Israel. There are schools that cater to a variety of different languages, including six for native English speakers. There are schools geared toward religious and nonreligious children and different programs for students who wish to focus their studies in science and or the arts.
Every year, the school reaches out to new communities. Smaller communities often have a bigger demand for Naale’s services because of a lack of Jewish schools or infrastructure.
“People are surprised that this program exists and ask why there aren’t more advertisements,” said Dikla Sity-Meir, regional director for Naale in Pennsylvania. “Our budget for advertising is limited, so that is our main job. The leaders of the community are our best allies. They identify the families that would be well suited for us.”
A student can apply in the eighth, ninth or 10th grade. The only fees are a registration fee and an acceptance fee, costing $600 each. Potential students and at least one parent then attend a special screening day that entails academic and psychological examinations to ensure that students are suited for the program.
“We aren’t necessarily looking for A-plus students, but we are looking for motivated students who can deal with coming to a new country alone, all the academics and 20 hours a week studying Hebrew,” said Sity-Meir. “Social skills and maturity level are a main component. The downside of this project is that parents and kids are separated, which is hard because it is a young age.”
If a student is accepted, the only thing a parent must pay for is if their child wants to fly home for vacation. Beyond that, all expenses are covered. This includes the flight to Israel, pocket money, extracurricular activities, school trips, school uniforms and school books.
Students do not need to know Hebrew before attending a Naale school — ulpan is a part of the core program in a student’s first year. Additionally, students come to Israel on a student visa, so they have no obligation to make aliyah or join the army following graduation. While the Israeli matriculation certificate is recognized at universities worldwide, many students choose to stay in Israel.
“People say, ‘If students don’t stay in Israel, what is the point? You’ve failed,” explained Meyers. “However, we say the opposite. Any student who goes home brings their experiences to their community. They are the best ambassadors for Israel that we could possibly have.”