The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will likely keep most Los Angeles high school students home over the next several months, but nearly 70 sophomores from Milken Community School will enjoy a unique, transformative experience because of a longstanding partnership between their school and a study abroad program in Israel.
In the first week of March 2021, 66 tenth-grade students from Milken, a pluralistic high school, will travel to Israel and spend their spring semester at Jewish National Fund-USA’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel.
“We are super excited that this is going to happen,” Limor Dankner, associate head of school for academic affairs and strategic partnerships at Milken Community School, said in an interview. “Kids are going to have a sense of normalcy in a time when they have not had it all year. Parents are willing to overcome their own fears, and it takes a lot of courage to do that, but it speaks to how urgent it is for our parents that they prioritize their children’s mental health and engage in a program that is Milken’s signature program.”
Since 2007, Milken has been sending its sophomores to high school in Israel as part of its Tiferet Israel Fellowship (TIF) program. Known affectionately by those who have attended school there simply as “Muss,” Alexander Muss High School in Israel provides students with the chance to increase their understanding of Israel’s history and bolster their sense of Jewish identity through formal classroom learning and experience-based education.
The Milken students participating in TIF this year had originally been scheduled to depart for their trip on Jan. 27, but COVID-19 derailed plans. Although Israel has been extraordinarily successful in providing vaccinations to its population, coronavirus cases have continued to spike in the country, and in an attempt to reduce the virus’ spread, the government has closed the airport, resulting in the postponement of the group’s departure date until early March.
To make up for lost time, Milken and Muss have extended the back-end of the students’ spring semester, and Dankner, associate head of school at Milken, expects the students’ stay in Israel to last until at least the second week of June.
Milken and Muss are taking numerous precautions to reduce the possibility of any infection. Prior to departing, the students will receive COVID-19 tests at Milken’s Bel Air campus. After arriving in Israel, they will quarantine for two weeks along with their madrichim (counselors), living in small groups of approximately six before settling into an ordinary living situation in the school’s dorms, located in the north of Tel Aviv at Hod HaSharon.
Dr. Mark Shinar, head of school at Muss, said the school has been approved as a quarantine site by Israel’s Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education.
Named the head of school in August, Shinar has been working in close collaboration with Milken leadership preparing for the students. “There is a tremendous amount of partnership and choreography that needs to happen between Alexander Muss High School in Israel and Milken based on the belief and trust that we are all working together to make sure the kids get to Israel,” he said in a phone interview.
The Milken students will be joining Jewish students from around North America. “That exposure to different people, different cultures or even to kids from different states” will be a highlight, Dankner said.
Because of the coronavirus, the program has undergone tweaks, and the students are likely to participate in a greater number of agricultural service learning opportunities than participants from previous years.
Jessica Schiff, 18, a Milken senior, participated in the program as a 16-year-old sophomore, opting for the trip after her older brother had gone when he was in tenth grade and loved the experience. She had been to Israel prior to TIF on family trips, but going to Israel with her classmates for an extended period of time provided her with a feeling of independence she had not experienced until that point.
It was out-of-the-classroom learning that resonated most with her, whether it was lessons about the Western Wall while actually at the Western Wall or studying about a historic episode on a mountain while on that mountain.
It was out-of-the-classroom learning that resonated most.
“I just loved being able to learn about Jewish history while sitting on the same mountain where a battle happened or looking out on a valley and hearing about how some sort of important event that happened in the valley,” she said in a phone interview. “It was so incredible.”
“At TIF, I got to experience living in Israel and explore parts of Israel I never had before with a more mature outlook I had in life,” she added. Of this year’s group, “I am jealous they get to go,” Schiff said.
The program is not inexpensive, however one-third of the students receive financial aid thanks to a newly established scholarship fund co-run by JNF-USA and Milken.
“We are very generous with our financial aid packages,” Dankner said. “JNF-USA has been very helpful in that.”
JNF-USA acquired Muss in 2013. Since launching in 1972, more than 28,000 alumni have experienced the study abroad program, including Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and reggae singer Matisyahu.
While the latest group to study at Muss will be doing so in the middle of a pandemic, it is specifically because of this challenge that Milken leaders expect this year’s group to be more plugged-in and present for their learning than students from previous years.
“This group, this cohort, is bringing to Muss what no cohort before them has brought — a longing and yearning for personal exchange and interaction,” Dankner said. “These kids, ironically enough, will be the first cohort not on their phones all the time. They are so thirsty and miss it so much, we expect them to be present in a way no cohort has been before.”