Rhyan Orenstein sat on a tank in what had been a desert battlefield. It was her classroom that day.
Ross Bordow learned some Israeli history by walking through tunnels in a foot of water, dug by hand thousands of years ago in the Old City.
“The major formula of our success is how we teach the history of our people,” said Rabbi Leor Sinai, who since 2013 has been co-executive director at the International Alexander Muss High School in Israel. That is where Orenstein and Bordow studied early this year, each taking time away from Nicolet High School in Glendale.
“A majority of our studies takes place in the field,” Sinai said. “For instance, when it comes time to study World War II, we fly to Poland. We fuse formal learning with informal.”
The Jewish National Fund, which acquired AMHSI in 2013, is hosting a reception for the school at 7 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 5, at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay.
Sinai said the study abroad program “is transformative. It changes the way the students see themselves as individuals. It impacts their maturity and their ability to overcome challenges.”
That was true for Orenstein, 17, who was a junior at Nicolet when she spent a semester studying in Israel beginning in January. She is spending her senior year at Pathways High, a project-based learning school in Milwaukee.
“I definitely matured a lot,” Orenstein said. “You’re an ocean away from home, so you have to do things on your own. But I had a lot of support at Muss, and my mom was always just a phone call away.
“I learned to manage my funds, to interact with others and I learned I could do anything I put my mind to. I had struggled with that. We were constantly going on field trips, and there was a seven-hour hike that was absolutely amazing. We spent one hour going up a mountain and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this.’ Halfway up, I thought, ‘This is a bad idea.’ But my friends all encouraged me and before I knew it, we were at the top. ‘I did it!’ I screamed.”
Orenstein, the daughter of Ellen Schneiderman and Andrew Orenstein, added, “We went to places we talked about in class. We saw where everything takes place. To learn the story of Masada, we hiked it.”
Visiting the Western Wall and going to Poland to study the Holocaust were other highlights. “We spent four days learning about the Israeli army in the Negev,” she said.
“We were treated like soldiers. We had classes on Jewish weddings, and how Israeli politics work. We spent one Shabbat in Tzfat, and walking through the streets, it was weird because I felt like I had been there before. We spent another Shabbat in Tel Aviv, which was so much fun. We learned the history of the city, which was incredible.”
Orenstein, who valued being independent in preparation for college, was impressed with the school. “The teachers there are incredible,” she said. “Classes are small and you get a lot of personalized help. You feel like the teachers care, and they pushed me to be better. I feel so much more confident in myself now and my ability to overcome adversity. I had been struggling with who I was as a person, but when I got back, I felt so much better about that.”
Orenstein said her grades weren’t what she would have liked at Nicolet, but during her four months at Muss, “I got all As and Bs and I am still getting that now,” she said.
Orenstein applied to Muss because “I wanted to travel and learn more about my Jewish identity and Judaism. A family friend strongly recommended it (Muss), and a cousin did it and loved it.”
Bordow, now an 18-year-old senior at Nicolet, spent two months at Muss beginning in April. His sister, Arielle, 19, attended Muss two years ago.
“My mom (Robin Bordow) is a big supporter of Israel, and she grew up in a Zionist family,” Bordow said. He said former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin slept at his maternal grandfather’s home a few times.
Bordow said his class would spend “three hours reliving history. There was learning and traveling in tandem. We would go to the different cities where history took place. And the archaeology was awesome.”
Walking through the tunnels in the Old City, and climbing Masada at sunrise were among Bordow’s highlights. “We watched the sunrise from the top of the mountain,” he said. “I had never seen the sunrise before. Being on Masada made it even cooler and amazing.”
Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, “was obviously moving,” Bordow said, “especially listening to the story of a survivor. It was incredible. We spent six hours there and it wasn’t enough – we could have spent days and days there.”
Bordow said three-hour classes went quickly because of the teachers “who kept us engaged. We weren’t just sitting there in class being lectured to and taking notes – we were actually in the field learning.”
Bordow spent some of his free time connecting with family he had never met before, and with friends he hadn’t seen in seven years.
The experience has left Bordow, a StandWithUs intern this year helping educate people about Israel, thinking about joining the Israeli army after high school graduation. “I don’t see going back to Israel just as a tourist,” he said. “I am considering joining the Israeli army because I feel an obligation as a Jewish person.”
Attending Muss is neither cheap nor easy. It costs about $1,000 a week, but financial aid is available and Rabbi Sinai said, “We don’t want to turn anybody away.”
The academics are rigorous, yet Sinai said dropouts are rare. “By the time a student leaves Israel, they have had a college experience in every sense,” said Sinai, 42. “We have a state-of-the-art campus.”
Muss, a non-denominational school located near Tel Aviv, averages 1,500 students a year. “We have a goal of 5,000 in the next five to 10 years,” said Sinai, noting there were 800 to 900 students four years ago. Staff fluctuates between 80 and 120 members, and the recruitment program has a staff of 12. Sinai said that with building a $10,000,000 endowment fund hopefully comes a second youth village.
Muss, which has developed a partnership with the University of Miami so that Muss students can earn up to six college credits, began in 1972 and has approximately 26,000 alumni around the world. “If you want to be part of something great, what else is greater than the narrative of the Jewish people,” Sinai said. “The majority of our students leave with a higher GPA (grade point average) than they came with. I see them leave our campus with the skills, knowledge and conviction to succeed in life.”
Rhyan Orenstein plans to encourage her 15-year-old brother, Morgan Orenstein, to attend Muss.
“Now I understand a lot more about Judaism and Israel, and I understand why we do certain things,” Orenstein said. “And you learn so much about yourself.”
“It was the best four months of my life.”
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How to go
What: Reception for Alexander Muss High School in Israel
Where: Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Whitefish Bay
When: Sunday, Nov. 5, 7 p.m.
Cost: Free and open to the public.
More info: Kim Levy at 847-656-8880 x763 or KLevy@Jnf.org.