Getting Away to Get Ahead: The Case for High School Semester in Israel Programs

Sometimes you need to get away to get ahead — especially if you are a North American teenager.

It’s June, and for high school seniors it’s time for graduation and excitement about heading off to college in the fall. These last months have been a culmination not only of 12 years of education, but also of a taxing and anxious year of applying to and waiting to be accepted by colleges.

But I’m not talking about getting away on a vacation this summer (although, that couldn’t hurt). I’m talking about going to Israel for a semester during high school — in advance of the college application process.

Here in Jerusalem at Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY), the high school semester abroad program I direct for Ramah Israel, we just said goodbye to this year’s cohort. Most are current tenth and eleventh graders who will soon have to deal with the stresses of the college application process. However, we know from experience that it is precisely because TRY students spend a semester in Israel that they will be ready to handle this process. They will also have an easier time transitioning to campus life as freshmen.

Students learning in the field, making Israel their classroom.

By the time TRY students get to university, they have already had the experience of living away from home for four months. They’ve mastered the skills needed to live independently as a young adult, like managing their expenses and doing their own laundry and housekeeping. They’ve made sure to eat nutritiously and get enough exercise (many run the 5 or 10k with me in the Jerusalem Marathon). They’ve committed to a busy and demanding academic schedule. And most importantly, they’ve learned to meet new people, get along with roommates and find their place socially on a campus.

Gaining this independence is a tall order, and one not easily filled in this age of helicopter parenting. As a father myself, I identify with wanting to closely supervise one’s children. But it’s hard for young adults to cut the cord when mom and dad are just a text message away. As difficult as it is, it’s a necessary step for them to take if they don’t want to remain “tethered college students,” as psychologist and “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” author Wendy Mogel calls college freshmen who fail to launch.

Spending a semester in Israel — thousands of miles away from your parents — is a great way to start snipping away at that cord.

It’s inevitable that our students will return home to face the stresses of the SAT, ACT, and AP exams. Unfortunately, there is no getting around this. However, we have discovered that because of TRY, our students experience their senior year and the college application process differently than they would have otherwise.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Stone, college counselor and author of “The Better College Essay: Fitting In and Standing Out,” colleges are looking for young people who show initiative, exhibit independence and push beyond their comfort zones. What better way to do this than to spend a semester in Israel without parents, siblings, and “home-friends” and teachers?

On TRY, teens keep up with their academics while engaging with an intensive Israel Core Curriculum that takes them all over the country to learn about their Jewish history and collective memory. Students grapple first-hand with challenging geo-political, social and religious aspects of Israeli history and society.

The college essay, a critical aspect of the college application process, is a way for a student to reflect deeply on the impact of experiences like TRY. Colleges want to know how the student has been challenged, and how she has coped, grown, and changed. Often, these insights emerge in the writing process, which takes place early in 12th grade — months after the student has returned from Israel.

TRY students don’t merely reflect on their time in Israel. They also take action to change their lives and those of others. For instance, one of our students started a weekly “Conflict 101” club at her Jewish high school to compensate for the lack of a required Israeli history course. Another decided that he would apply only to colleges with a vibrant Conservative Jewish life and get involved in Jewish campus leadership. Yet another realized the importance of family after visiting Poland with TRY, and now makes sure to keep everyone in her family in touch.

“After TRY, I was able to do a fearless college application process,” one of our students told me.

Not every teen is ready for a program like TRY, but for those who are, it is an excellent way to take a break from the high school pressure cooker and prepare for senior year and beyond.

About the Author
Jonathan is the director of Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY), a high school study abroad program in Israel. Jonathan grew up in Owings Mills, Maryland and made Aliya in 2009. He holds an MSW from Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research and worked as a foster care and high school social worker in Southwest and North Philadelphia before moving to Israel. Jonathan lives with his wife Roni, and son, Yuval, in Jerusalem.
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