Olim Schools: An Anglo Bubble or Your Ticket to a Successful Aliyah?
BY ARIELA DAVIS
Don’t make Aliyah with teenagers. It’s a constant refrain that families entertaining the crazy but idealistic fulfillment of their Aliyah dreams hear from just about everyone. Throw young kids into the Israeli system and they’ll be rattling off Hebrew within a year, making fun of your woefully American accent and climbing over fences with their Israeli classmates. But to uproot teens from their friends and everything that provides them with stability, identity and comfort when they are already struggling at that prickly age? Bad idea.
Whether it’s due to new opportunities to work remotely or the loss of faith in the future of Jewish communities in the Diaspora, many families are now making the ‘insane’ decision to make Aliyah with teens. As the principal of Ulpanat Orly, a girls’ high school designed for olim, I speak to many such families each week.
The fears of making Aliyah with teens are not groundless. Though simply dropping kids into the deep end of the pool in the hopes of speeding their integration is often successful, throwing teens into anything does not work the same way. By nature, teens yearn for independence and autonomy, while moving with your family across the ocean demands significant buy-in and adaptability. Even if a teen is on board with the move, their adolescent insecurity can make everything feel more challenging. Learning math and science in Hebrew in order to take the bagrut (Israel’s matriculation exams) requires far different vocabulary and fluency than their day-school Hebrew has prepared them for. Many former straight-A students experience a loss of identity as they sit, disoriented, in a Hebrew-speaking classroom while earning grades far lower than they used to. It is daunting for even the most socially-adjusted kids to break into existing social cliques while fearing the embarrassment of making mistakes in Hebrew. While many teen olim adapt and succeed in mainstream Israeli schools, others struggle. I’ve met many students who lose their motivation to learn Hebrew, refuse to go to school and make plans to return to their country of origin as soon as possible – even when living in communities with considerable Anglo populations.
But we’ve also seen many teens experience incredible success at schools designed to help them acclimate and integrate into the country at a pace that meets their academic and social needs. At schools like Ulpanat Orly in Beit Shemesh, devoted staff ease students into learning Hebrew in an environment where students can ask questions in their own language and can practice their Hebrew without being self-conscious about their accent – because everyone else has one too. Eventually, students do learn the language – but at their own pace, without pressure. Many of these schools also make a special effort to inspire a love for Israel and the Land, helping teens understand why it was worth giving up the comfort of their old life to embark on this new adventure.
While most parents are initially hesitant to enroll their teens in an ‘Anglo-bubble’ school, many of those same parents are later deeply grateful that their kids are happy and learning again. Schools designed for olim may not offer the immediate integration in Israeli society that we all want for our kids, but they might just be your ticket to a successful Aliyah!
Ariela Davis is the Principal of Ulpanat Orly in Beit Shemesh and a former Rebbetzin and Director of Judaics/Interim Principal in Charleston, SC, from where her family made Aliyah in the summer of 2020.