JNF Wire: Riley O'Connor Feels at Home with Alexander Muss High School in Israel
August 12, 2016
Adam H. Brill, Director of Communications
Riley O'Connor Feels at Home with Alexander Muss High School in Israel
By: Allison Levine
Riley O'Connor (left) and best friend, Elliot Hacker, a fellow AMHSI-JNF student from Boca Raton, Florida.
According to Reuven Spero, a veteran teacher at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI-JNF), the typical student coming to this program in Israel to study abroad is a Jewish teenager between 10th and 12th grade from a Reform, Conservative, or unaffiliated background.
Seventeen-year-old Riley O’Connor does not fit the “typical participant” description of an AMHSI-JNF student. While the Boca Raton native’s best friend is Jewish, he himself is not and he doesn’t think it odd that he chose to spend his summer in Israel with AMHSI-JNF. An incoming senior at Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, Florida, O’Connor explains that, although he was raised Christian, he felt drawn to AMHSI-JNF’s program as a student and as an observer of other peoples.
“My dad is a non-practicing Catholic and my mom is Presbyterian, but not very observant,” said O’Connor. “My goal is to see and experience the world and try to understand it better. I realized one day that my best friend is Jewish but I couldn’t really explain what Passover is. I wanted to deepen my understanding of Judaism and of Israel. My parents really supported my choice to come on this program—they understood my reasons for wanting to experience this for myself. To me it made a lot of sense to come to Israel. I have an interest in learning more about different people, and this program was a great opportunity to do just that.”
Reflecting on his first impression upon arriving in Israel, O’Connor said: “I suppose I was most surprised by the welcoming nature of Israelis. In a country constantly under stress, you’d think that they wouldn’t be so open to foreigners, but they’ve been very friendly.” On a clear day in July, O’Connor’s group toured different sites in the southern city of Sderot, which lies mere miles from the Gaza Strip, including the police station where rocket fragments are stored. Towards the end of their time in Sderot, they toured Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) Sderot Indoor Recreation Center, where he remarked on the sense of calm and serenity in the air. “I see kids running around playing, climbing, and eating snacks together. There’s no fear of rockets being fired from Gaza in this place, and I feel safe as well.”
O’Connor explained that while he heard about border tensions between Israel and Gaza in the news, it wasn’t until his visit to Sderot where he gained a full understanding of the situation. “Through AMHSI, I’ve been able to study many different pieces of Judaism and Israel and to really explore the complexities—so much more than I would ever have been able to do on my own or in a classroom in the U.S. Here, in Sderot, we know that kids are just kids, and it’s important for them to grow up with a safe place to play,” O’Connor said before he and other AMHSI-JNF students took a few minutes at the end of their tour to play a quick basketball game with some of the local kids.
AMHSI-JNF takes their students on in-depth explorations of Israel—from the ancient to the present. Classes are held both on campus and in the field, and day trips and overnight excursions crisscross the country. “AMHSI’s program consists of touring and classes all in one,” said O’Connor. “I don’t know if I’ll ever come back to Israel, so right now I’m just trying to take it all in as much as I can while I’m still here.”
A particularly meaningful moment for O’Connor was in Jerusalem, during their visit to the Western Wall [Kotel], Judaism’s holiest site. “I was able to get very close to the wall—right up there,” he said. “It was actually our second time visiting the Kotel, but this time we came at night. I’m not a religious person, but the place had such a holy vibe to it. I remember looking up at the stars, standing there, and realizing that for 2,000 years, millions of people have stood at that very same spot. I felt that I was able to have a shared experience with so many different people who have stood there over time. It was really powerful.”
“Although it’s not incredibly common, Riley is not the first non-Jewish student that I’ve had in my class,” said Spero, who is O’Connor’s teacher during his time at AMHSI-JNF. “The program is Jewish, but pluralistic and very open to whomever wants to participate. AMHSI is a welcoming place to anyone wanting to learn more about Judaism and Israel.”
As the summer draws to a close, O’Connor said he had found much more during his experience at AMHSI-JNF. “I find that I understand people better,” he said, reflecting on his time in Israel. “I understand humans better. Israelis are people who just want to live. Everyone wants to live.”
Rather than focus on a single viewpoint or one message, O’Connor recounted the varied experiences and encounters that his class had throughout the summer together. “There are so many different people here in this tiny country, but we are more alike than we are different. It is easier to talk about differences—and we tend to talk about the differences—but in the end we are very much the same,” he said. “It has been the experience of a lifetime!”
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