A small seed of an idea planted by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 has turned into one of the most successful Jewish high schools in Israel. Naale Elite Academy, a life-changing, all-expenses paid, high school program for Jewish teenagers from the Diaspora, celebrates its 21st birthday this month.

Naale Elite Academy is a microcosm of Israeli society, a real melting pot of young people from different countries, cultures and outlooks. Started in the early ‘90s for youth from the Former Soviet Union (FSU), the high school now welcomes young Jewish students from more than 50 countries around the world.

Avital van Meijeren Karp (18) graduated from Naale Elite Academy last year. After graduation, she returned home to Canada and is taking time off to be with her family before she makes any life decisions.

“Attending high school in Israel changed my life in so many ways,” she said. “It really opened my eyes and my mind to new things. Before, I had never even considered joining the Israeli Defense Forces. Now, it’s one of my main options. Coming from a small town in Canada, I only knew what I had grown up around, but Naale opened me up to so many different cultures and people. I really grew as a person.” 

created at: 2012-11-20 (L-R) Avital Karp from Canada with friend, Bat-Elle Kaplan from Australia. Photo: Courtesy Avital Karp

Naale Elite Academy enables young Jews from the Diaspora to complete their last three years of high school at an exclusive, top quality Israeli high school while learning to be independent, self-sufficient and resilient. The program is co-funded by the State of Israel (the Israeli Ministry of Education) and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The success of the Naale Elite Academy was summed up by late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (z”l) when he said: “There is no more noble enterprise than Naale.”

Looking back

During the early 90s in the Former Soviet Union (FSU), many Jews were concerned about their children’s future. The education system in the FSU had deteriorated drastically and parents needed to find other options.

According to family and friends living in Israel, the standard of education in the country was very high and they believed it would be a good place to send their children. They spoke to the Israeli shlichim (emissaries) about the possibilities and not long after, the concerns found their way to the then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (z”l).

Shamir himself had wished to study in Israel as a child growing up in Eastern Europe. He discussed the situation with Zevulun Hammer (z”l), then Minister of Education, who believed that all Diaspora Jews had a right to a strong Jewish education. After many discussions, the idea to bring these youngsters to school in Israel at no cost to their parents, and without having to commit to making Aliyah, was born.

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Each year, the new group of students is given a name relating to something significant that happened that year. This year’s group is called “Shamir” for Yitzhak Shamir, z”l, former Prime Minister of Israel and one of the initiators of the Naale program, who passed away in June 2012. Photo: Darryl Egnal

Yeshayahu Yechieli, now director of Naale, found out about the idea and mentioned it to his friend and mentor, Aryeh Kroll, secretary general of the Religious Kibbutz movement at the time. The two were already involved in a program that brought Russian Jewish youth to Israel for a young leadership program. These youth stayed on Kibbutz Yavne for three months initially, but decided they wanted to stay in Israel to study. Most of them ended up staying for three years.

“When I heard about the idea, I asked Aryeh to approach Zevulun to let him know we had experience in running such a program and could help the Ministry of Education to set it up,” said Yechieli. “They were very supportive of us and were happy that we wanted to take control.”

After travelling to the FSU and talking to Hebrew teachers and parents of potential students, answering questions, screening applicants and making decisions, they had a list of over 300 teenagers. The wait for the relevant papers and passports meant that the new students would miss two months of school, and an alternative had to be found.

“With the help of the Israeli Ministry of Education, in the space of two weeks, we had a team of 30 teachers flown in from Israel and they started the school term with the students. In November 1992, we arrived in Israel with all 336 students, and the Naale pilot program was officially launched,” he said.

Today, Naale Elite Academy has 16 schools for Russian-speakers and about five schools that cater to English-speakers from Western countries ranging across the religious spectrum from secular to religious Orthodox and religious Haredi.

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Yeshayahu Yechieli, director of Naale, welcoming the new students at their recent welcome ceremony at Park Golda in the Negev. Photo: Darryl Egnal

The next decades

“The first decade was about establishing and building the Naale brand, and focused on bringing youth from the FSU,” said Yechieli. “Once this was a success, we knew it was time to expand. The second decade was the ‘dream’ decade. In 2000, we opened it up to other countries, starting with Argentina. Many thought we were crazy, but three months later, we had 100 applicants and after the screening and evaluation process, we had 50 students, who started in September of that year.”

Other countries followed and the idea became an international project. Since the program launched, there have been more than 30,000 applicants, 14,500 pupils selected and 11,500 graduates from the United States, Europe, the FSU, South America, Germany, Poland and South Africa, among others.

“Have you ever heard of a State that would pay tuition for 14,500 foreigners without asking them to commit to anything?” asks Yechieli. “Yet this is what the government of Israel has done over the past two decades. And now, as we enter our third decade, our focus will be on special programs for excellence.”

Naale Elite Academy has plans afoot for some interesting initiatives. The first one, which will be launched in September 2013, will look at bringing in 30 students from the Diaspora and putting them together with 30 from Israel with a focus on training them to be engineers. This is a joint initiative between World ORT, the Technion in Haifa and Naale. Similar initiatives for 2014 will include a language program, with a special focus on Chinese, and a music program.

“We want to be more focused on specific fields to give our graduates a better chance when they leave Naale,” he said.

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This year’s intake of students at their recent welcome ceremony at Park Golda in the Negev. Photo: Darryl Egnal

The ins and outs of the program

Potential students have to go through a series of interviews. In addition, two tests are required before accepting candidates – one to determine their academic level in Math and English, and a second to determine their maturity (and thus their ability to live away from home), which requires psychological testing.

Every scholarship comprises a full airfare for the flight to school at the beginning of the 10th grade year, full room and board, free tuition, off-campus travel expenses, tiyulim (special trips), a budget for maintaining telephone contact with family, a monthly stipend and laundry service. There is also an option of two to three years free tuition at an Israeli university, before or after the army.

All students are admitted to the country on an extended tourist’s visa (unless they are children born to Israelis) and need not make an Aliyah commitment of any kind. Their status does not change as long as they are living alone in Israel without their parents. Students can, however, choose to make Aliyah when they reach the appropriate age.

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 Friends from Naale Elite Academy have fun on the beach. Photo: Courtesy Avital Karp

Those coming from Western countries must be proficient in English, even those from non-English-speaking countries. While students are initially taught in English, Hebrew is gradually integrated into the classroom. By the time the students reach the 11th grade, they are being taught, tested, asked to write reports and converse in Hebrew exclusively. 

Students graduate with one of the top high school educations in Israel, a country that is known for its entrepreneurial success despite its young age. But more importantly, they have also learnt to manage their time, take care of their own finances, look after themselves in a challenging environment without their parents and become independent – preparing them for the world in a way that no other regular high school can achieve.

“The best part was graduating with an Israeli matriculation,” said Karp. ”It’s an amazing feeling to know that you accomplished something so special and did something that you would have otherwise only dreamed of.

“It’s really great to be in an environment where you are constantly surrounded by people that care about you. Your friends comfort you when needed and the staff is always there to offer advice or help. I think it’s absolutely amazing that I can say I have friends all over the world. Australia, Germany, Mexico, Norway. It’s crazy to think that have friends from these places because if we hadn’t attended Naale, we never would have met,” she said.

Recognition from the top

In March 2012, to celebrate Naale Elite Academy’s 20th year, students, graduates and faculty members were invited to the Prime Minister’s office. The PM’s spokesperson for the FSU, Alex Selsky, who arranged the visit, is a Naale graduate.

Among the participants in the meeting with PM Netanyahu were graduates and pupils from 15 countries. Participating Naale graduates include IDF officers, outstanding lecturers and researchers, social activists, artists and high-tech entrepreneurs like Raphael Ouzan, co-founder of BillGuard. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Naale’s directors from the Education Ministry, Yechiel Shilo and Yeshayahu Yechieli, were also in attendance.

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Naale students with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem in March 2012. Photo: Courtesy GPO

“I am impressed by the personal journey that each of you has made in [coming] to Israel,” said Netanyahu to the group. “Your success has been extraordinary. I appreciate this, both personally and on a national level. You are building up the country. Israeli society is built on the younger generation.”

Talking to those who had made Aliyah since finishing school, he said: “Without a doubt, Naale is a type of exodus from Egypt. I hope that each one of you continues to climb higher and higher here in the Land of Israel.”

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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Jewish Agency Chairman, Natan Sharansky, hosted Naale students at the PM’s office in Jerusalem in March 2012. Photo: Courtesy GPO


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