September 18, 2019

Teacher and student of Israel: Aliza Mchugh

Santa Monica High School
Going to: UC Berkeley

Santa Monica High School student Aliza McHugh visited Israel when she was 12 on what she calls a “pre-bat mitzvah trip.” But it was the eight weeks she spent there in the spring of her sophomore year, as part of the Alexander Muss High School in Israel study abroad program, that was truly transformative.

“I just felt really connected,” the UC Berkeley-bound teen said. “When you’re learning about Masada … you actually go to Masada and hike it. Everything is very interactive. You do three field trips a week, sometimes spending all day learning about the thing in the site where it happened.

“I felt like I grew up a lot. And I learned about recent terrorism,” she said. “So I had a much better grip on what was actually happening, and having lived there, I could advocate for Israel.”

Supporting Israel and addressing some of the misconceptions she has heard, such as, “There’s so much conflict there,” is a role McHugh has embraced. 

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“I like telling people and showing people what it’s not,” she said. “It’s not the place it’s made out to be in the media.”

This past fall, McHugh taught a four-unit class on Israel to the confirmation students at her Reconstructionist synagogue, Kehillat Israel, in Pacific Palisades. She developed the curriculum herself.

“I wanted to learn about where their knowledge of Israel stood and then did sessions on the history and present-day Israel, culminating in what they can do to get involved,” she said. “Some of them, now that I taught, are going to Israel because they were so interested.”

McHugh, who said that she might like to work in or start a nonprofit related to social justice one day, has become involved in national organizations as well. She attended the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, D.C., for the past two years, and more recently, she was selected as one of approximately 50 youth across the country to participate in the StandWithUs-MZ Teens internship program. The yearlong leadership program readies teens for the differing attitudes toward Israel they may encounter in college. 

“UC Berkeley is not known for being pro-Israel,” she said. “With my internship program, they’re going to prepare us on how to deal with that.”

McHugh’s desire to “live every day like it’s your last” — a favorite motto of hers — is evident in other elements of her life as well. Since eighth grade, McHugh has played water polo — she started on a whim, accompanying a friend to a club meeting in middle school. But soon she was all in, and for the past three years, she’s played on the varsity team at her high school. 

“I wasn’t the greatest player,” she said. “But I loved being part of a team.” 

This year, McHugh was honored as the team’s most inspirational player.

“She just worked really hard,” coach Matthew Flanders said. “She was inspirational in her work ethic. When she was working hard, everyone else wanted to work hard.

“She’s got a great character. She will do something great. I don’t know what that is going to be. I don’t know that she knows. But it’ll be great.”