High school girls on an NCSY Israel event
Aliyah with Teenagers is Not Impossible!
BY DR. YAEL WAHRHAFTIG MILLER
I want to address one of the biggest practical challenges facing the Religious Zionist community today: making Aliyah with teenagers. I am well aware that most people argue against making Aliyah with teens and that if your children have finished elementary school, you’ve missed the Aliyah window. But is that the end of the story? Make Aliyah by a certain deadline – or grow old in the Diaspora?
Hoping to learn more, I interviewed several teenagers who made Aliyah between the ages of 12 and 18 and also spoke with parents, teachers, outreach leaders and school administrators who work with young olim. I learned that Aliyah with teenagers is challenging but doable – and there are several important factors that can increase your teen’s chances for a successful Aliyah:
#1 A Strong Desire to Live in Israel: Parents who are passionate about living in the land that G-d promised us and transmit that desire to their children will help their teens develop the resolve and commitment they need to succeed. Otherwise, teens will want to push the exit button the minute the going gets tough. As one mother with four teens said: “Our kids definitely had some rocky periods during our Aliyah, but we pulled through because living in Israel was our goal. We were committed to making it work, whatever it took.”
Tzipporah, an inspirational young woman who made Aliyah in 9th grade, described her high school experience as “a very challenging 4 years with a lot of tears. But I kept pushing myself because I wanted to make it work.” After successfully earning her Teudat Bagrut (high school diploma) with a lot of tutoring and support from her parents, Tzipporah created a website, www.teensurvivalguidealiyah.com, as a resource and a supportive community for olim teens.
#2 Understand the Israeli High School System: The Israeli high school system has very clear requirements, beginning primarily in 11th grade, for achieving a Teudat Bagrut. Understandably, one young oleh explained that “you can make Aliyah up until 10th grade, but that 11th and 12th graders should finish high school in the Diaspora and then come to Israel.” Many families make arrangements for their 11th and 12th graders to remain behind and finish school before joining them in Israel. That being said, if you do come with an 11th or 12th grader, there are now several GED and Penn Foster programs in Israel which will help your teens earn their high school diploma.
#3 Find a Community with Schools that Support Olim: Know your child’s rights as an oleh and make sure their school can accommodate them. Tzipporah’s website is an excellent resource (see above).
#4 Daven: Ask Hashem for help. He wouldn’t have commanded us to come here if he didn’t want to help us succeed. After making Aliyah I learned why Israel is referred to as אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן in the Torah. The definition of הַכְנָעָה is humility, or submission. Being an immigrant is a daily act of humility, and can lead to a stronger relationship with Hashem than one ever imagined.
#5 Be Prepared to (Academically) Fail: A 12th grade olah who had been a strong student in America said: “I heard from people that school was going to be very hard… but no one warned me that I was going to fail! Don’t let that dissuade you. With time, you will start to do better and better.”
#6 Get Extra Academic Support: With the growth of Anglo communities in Israel, many olim don’t need to speak Hebrew to manage their daily lives – which makes it harder for olim to learn the language. People used to say “your kids will be fluent in Hebrew by Chanukah”; for most, unfortunately, this is simply not true. Be prepared to find tutors for your child, as a good tutor can provide both academic and emotional support to your teenager.
#7 Consider English Language Schools and Youth Movements: One of the most incredible and miraculous developments for Aliyah has been the advent of English school and youth movements. Established in 2008, Yerushalayim Torah Academy (YTA) is a religious English language high school with separate boys and girls’ campuses in Jerusalem. Ulpanat Orly and Ohr Moshe in Beit Shemesh are also great schools geared towards olim.
Rabbi Bezalel Borstein, principal of YTA for Boys, explains that transitioning into a fully Hebrew-speaking environment is quite challenging for many teens. He stresses the importance of assessing a student’s language skills when choosing a learning environment as well as recognizing and honoring their emotional and social needs; teens need to be in a school where they feel happy and can be successful. But while YTA is an English school, the students take a full Bagrut program and begin to culturally and socially integrate into Israeli society. Amazingly, almost 100 percent of YTA’s alumni have gone on to Yeshivot Hesder or Mechinot, serve in the IDF after graduation, and stay in Israel as dedicated and contributing Israeli citizens.
Many olim who grew up as part of Bnei Akiva worldwide feel that participation in Bnei Akiva is the Israeli teen’s badge of honor and “if you can integrate successfully into Bnei Akiva, then you have really made it”. But it is important to recognize that youth group participation in Israel ends after 9th grade (unless a teen is selected to be a counselor), and so these youth movements are generally not an option for teens who make Aliyah. To address this need, Rabbis Michael Kahn and Yosef Ginsberg started NCSY Israel, providing Anglo teens an English language religious youth movement experience throughout all four years of high school (israel.ncsy.org).
#8 Be Open to Changing Course: As one family said: “We came with a plan, and enrolled our daughter in an Israeli high school that seemed like the perfect fit; it was in line with our religious views and offered great resources to olim. However, after the first several months we realized that it wasn’t the right fit for her, and we made a course correction. Today, she is enrolled at YTA, and is much happier.”
#9 Become Allies with your Teen’s School: Let’s be honest, teachers who work with olim have to put in extra work. Remember to show your teen’s teacher as much appreciation as possible.
#10 Be a Role Model for your Teens: Break your teeth and speak in Hebrew just like you are asking your teens to do every day! Whether by attending ulpan, Hebrew shiurim, working in a Hebrew environment or speaking with neighbors and store owners in Hebrew, you are showing your teen that you are making an effort and are not afraid to look foolish and make mistakes (trust me – you will! But those mistakes make the best Aliyah stories!).
#11 Stay Close with Your Teen: As many of us learned through the COVID lockdowns, having a close relationship with your child can give them the strength to get through almost anything. If they know you believe in them, they will believe in themselves.
The takeaway from my research: Aliyah with teens is certainly challenging, but it is not impossible! Choosing to take the Lech Lecha leap may be difficult, but remember that in doing so, you will be changing the course of history for future generations of your family. In life, our greatest accomplishments are the ones we work the hardest to achieve. To quote Ari Fuld hy”d: “If life is easy, you’re living it wrong.”
Dr. Yael Wahrhaftig Miller made Aliyah with her family in 2014 and has worked for the last 8 years as a school psychologist in the Israeli school system. She is currently the Rakezet Olim for the school psychology department of Efrat, helping school age olim and their parents integrate into Israeli society.