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Hiking Towards Heritage

JNF Wire Report

Hiking Towards Heritage

By Aquila Mendez-Valdez

Sleepy-eyed and yawning, 45 teenagers stepped-off the bus one bright Wednesday morning, finding themselves in the Israeli foothills. The 16-year-olds all attend the same high school in Los Angeles, but have journeyed across oceans to attend Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI-JNF) to study abroad for a semester. On most days, students spend half their time studying in the classroom and the other exploring the countryside, learning more about the Jewish state’s history and culture than they ever would on a family vacation.

On this particular day, AMHSI-JNF’s Israel Studies Educator Danny Stein told the group they were about to hike the second tallest mountain in Israel, Mount Meron. This was clearly not going to be just any trendy hike like they would experience in the canyons of Los Angeles for recreation or fitness. As voices hushed, Stein explained that the lush vegetation surrounding the small clearing was due to reforestation efforts by Jewish National Fund. Israel, he noted, is one of the only countries in the world that has more trees now than it did 100 years ago. With that in mind, the hike began in a rocky gorge, and the students naturally filed into line.

As the sun filtered through the brush, excitement swept through the students as they swapped stories about their experiences so far. “I’ve visited my family in Israel every summer,” said Itai Darmon, “but this is totally different.” Leeor Abutbul agreed. “I have a lot of family that lives here, but it’s a completely different experience having the opportunity to travel to all these places and learn about the history of the places we visit,” he said. It’s all part of an effort by AMHSI-JNF to immerse high school students into Israeli culture for an experiential learning component they can’t find anywhere else.

Located outside Tel Aviv, in the town of Hod HaSharon, students at AMSHI-JNF are enrolled in an Israel Studies curriculum that delves into the finer details of over 4,000 years of Jewish and Israeli history. In addition, to continue their American high school education requirements, students are required to attend General Studies classes. Recently, the Israel Studies course curriculum turned to World War II for Holocaust Memorial Day, a topic and conversation that Darmon described as eye-opening. “The teachers gave us questions, and we talked about anti-Semitism and racism,” he said. Following the unit on the Holocaust, Darmon said he understood why his siblings—AMHSI-JNF alumni—were so insistent that he go. “This is best choice I’ve ever made.”

As the terrain became increasingly difficult, conversations quieted, with Stein occasionally stopping the group to point out an interesting variety of tree. One student, Ethan Zimmerman admitted it wasn’t always this easy. “For the first two weeks, it was sort of a cultural shock,” he said, “but after the first month it was really nice. My Hebrew has definitely improved, and I have a greater appreciation for the things I have.”

As the hike continued, it was increasingly apparent that AMHSI-JNF is much more than a study abroad program for these teenagers. They each have their own unique ties to the country of their ancestry, and each has an experience that has brought them immeasurably closer to that heritage. For many of them, coming to this school was their first time being thousands of miles away from home, and felt that they had grown both emotionally and academically.

For Avi Engelman his time at AMHSI-JNF even brought him closer to his faith. “I’ve never been on a spiritual journey, so I was really skeptical,” he said. “But now that I’ve gone through it, I feel a strong connection to Israel and Judaism.”

As it turns out, this wasn’t just a hike in the mountains, and AMHSI-JNF isn’t just a school. It’s a journey into the past, and that’s building a bright future for these students.

Adam H. Brill,
Director of Communications

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JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.

JNF embodies both heart and action; our work is varied in scope but singular in benefit. We strive to bring an enhanced quality of life to all of Israel’s residents, and translate these advancements to the world beyond. JNF is greening the desert with millions of trees, building thousands of parks, creating new communities and cities for generations of Israelis to call home, bolstering Israel’s water supply, helping develop innovative arid-agriculture techniques, and educating both young and old about the founding and importance of Israel and Zionism.

JNF is a registered 501(c)(3) organization and United Nations NGO, which continuously earns top ratings from charity overseers.

For more information on JNF, call 888-JNF-0099 or visit


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