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American And Israeli College Students: A Missed Opportunity
Mon, 12/27/2010 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week

At a time of great concern about young American Jews identifying positively with Israel, study-abroad programs in Israel for U.S. college students should be a great benefit. But while these opportunities provide exposure to Hebrew language skills and immersion in Israeli society, they also foster a disconnect. The fact is that diaspora and Israeli students rarely meet in the classroom.

American University senior Samantha Levine studies Conflict Resolution, and she hoped that attending university in Haifa last fall would give her valuable exposure to a unique community. Her experience left her disenchanted.

“I was hoping that in a class called ‘Arab-Israeli Relations’ the program would think to bring an Israeli and a Palestinian to class, but instead we just sat at our desks and did nothing to incorporate our surroundings,” she said. “The international school was a bubble, and I felt really secluded.”

Levine's dissatisfaction is not a new phenomenon. The 626 students interviewed by the American Jewish Committee in the late 1980s for its study on North American Jewish students at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School (RIS) “commented that their Israeli experience could have been more rewarding if more contacts were established with Israeli students.” Hebrew University sociologist Erik Cohen found in 1993 that 83 percent of students wanted to study in Israel to improve their Hebrew skills, and that 64 percent wanted to gain Israeli friends. These days, there is little potential for interactions with native speakers because international students are sequestered in stand-alone international schools.

One problem is structural. The schools have strict policies regarding the option of taking classes within the regular university, and rightfully so. It is unreasonable to expect Israeli universities to conduct a wide variety of classes in English for the benefit of a few hundred. Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa allow international students to take some of their classes through the regular university provided they demonstrate an advanced level of Hebrew. But scheduling issues in the Israeli and American academic calendars limit the available options.

Hebrew University does not allow international students to take classes in its regular departments. In fact, the RIS building has its own library, computer room and cafeteria, so students only venture into the regular university to buy their books at the beginning of the semester. Despite this imposed separation, RIS created a new option, Spring in Jerusalem, which ran for the first time last year. Twenty courses taught in English were offered in different Hebrew University departments, and some were presented in a shorter format to account for the longer Israeli semester. Each participant took at least two of those courses together with Israeli students.

Spring in Jerusalem offers a feasible solution to the segregation between American and Israeli students, but it needs to be expanded. Offering courses in departments like Jewish Studies, which appeal to both Israeli and American students, would help to close the divide. Instead of being elective, all international students enrolled in study-abroad programs at Israeli universities should be required to take these classes. This would increase face-to-face contact and encourage extracurricular interaction.

A second issue is the age and experience gaps between Israeli and American university students. Israeli students are generally at least two to three years older than their American peers, and they have already spent a few years performing their mandatory service for the Israel Defense Forces. Eager to spend time with friends and family on weekends, and often holding down part-time jobs while attending school, the Israeli students approach the university experience in a pragmatic, career-oriented way. As a result Israeli campuses lack the kind of vibrant extracurricular campus life familiar to most American students.

These gaps may be wide, but it is possible to narrow them. Hebrew language classes at the international schools are underused outlets for Israeli-American interaction. They are taught by Israeli teachers, but Israeli peers are best suited to introduce international students to the Hebrew of the street. Israeli students should be used as teaching assistants or conversation partners.

There are extracurricular avenues to integration as well. Programming around Jewish holidays would be particularly effective, since a 2001 survey by Tel Aviv University education experts Smadar Donitsa-Schmidt and Maggie Vadish indicated that North American students saw Jewishness as the link between themselves and Israelis. Jewish activities would also attract American Orthodox students who typically come to Israel with their social infrastructures already in place.

Until study-abroad programs in Israel encourage face-to-face interaction between American and Israeli students both inside and outside the classroom, they will continue to face a problem with integration. American college students investing a semester or year to study abroad in Israel are tomorrow’s policy-makers and community leaders, and they are hungry for an understanding of Israeli language and culture that can come only from interacting with their Israeli peers.

Allison Good is a senior at Vassar College.

American Jews, Israel, Study Abroad

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It's quite a shame to criticize the program you attended when as a "future policy maker and community leader" it is by all means your responsibility to step outside your comfort zone and take the initiative to make your experience what you want of it. You can easily make Palestinian and Israeli friends easily, especially in the very diverse Haifa University. I did a year abroad at Haifa International School where I lived with 3 Israelis, 2 Jewish and one Circassian (Muslim). I am still friends with them today here in Israel. I also volunteered teaching English to Ethiopian youth in Haifa. And I had an entirely Hebrew speaking internship at a battered women's shelter in Haifa. Not to mention the American, Czech, British, German, Russian, and Colombian people I met in the International school alone. I would choose Haifa International School in a heartbeat if I had to do it all over again.
As the Director of Undergraduate Studies at the Rothberg International School, I would like to congratulate Ms. Good on initiating this stimulating debate. One error should be pointed out: the Hebrew University of Jerusalem does not prohibit or prevent international students from studying in the variouis faculties or departments of the university and indeed there are dozens of students who do so. Students wishing to join these courses must of course have the relevant prerequisites and a sufficient knowledge of Hebrew. Moreover, the increasing number of courses offered in English in the departments of Political Science, Communications, Business Administration, Law, Jewish History, Brain Studies and Psychology are open to all students at the Rothberg International School and not only participants on the Spring in Jerusalem Honors Program. Not only do RIS students study in other HU departments: many regular Israeli students at HU choose classes at the Rothberg International School. In addition, hundreds of Israelis study full-time at RIS: new immigrants, veteran Israelis who completed their high school studies abroad and Palestinian students from East Jerusalem entering the Israeli university system. This year, the Rothberg School opened three new tracks in the fine arts: DanceJerusalem and Jerusalem Sounds (Music) with the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, and ArtJerusalem with the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Students in all of these tracks study with Israelis in the classroom or studio. They train, create and perform together. Students can intern in Israeli NGOs or businesses. There is also a very close relationship with the Israeli Student Union, and RIS students join Israeli students in Student Union activities throughout the year. In short, there are more opportunities than ever to mix with Israelis, and I invite our current and future students to try them out. As Allison Good correctly emphasizes, only through this interaction can students gain a deeper understanding of Israeli society and culture.
I completely agree that when studying in Israel students should have the ability to live, work and socialize with Israelis. And that’s exactly what the Overseas Student Program at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is well known for. Interestingly, the article didn’t mention BGU’s program, which immerses students into the diverse Beer-Sheva community: a microcosm of Israeli society. Not only are participants encouraged to volunteer in different community organizations but they are placed in dorm apartments where they are the only international student among three Israelis per apartment. North American students who study at Ben-Gurion University volunteer in Israeli community service projects, join intramural sport teams, the University’s chorus, the Student Association, and have the option to be “adopted” by a local family. At BGU students come away with connections to the Beer-Sheva community, Israeli friends and a higher level of Hebrew than they came with. Find out more by visiting
I'm going to be attending Ben Gurion University for this Spring Semester and whats so great about it is that I will have three Israeli roommates! One of the reasons I chose to study abroad there was that very reason. There is no International School or Dorms we are in, we are simply International Students at the University. Maybe the other Universities in Israel should follow suit.
Tel Aviv University is home to a variety of international programs, from full graduate degrees to semester exchanges, and hosts nearly 800 students from countries outside of Israel, many of whom are not Jewish. Studying and living abroad is a sometimes overwhelming and stressful experience; adjusting to the culture, the language, and even the public transportation system can leave students feeling lost. However, having a connection with a student, a peer, from within this new country would greatly alleviate some of the day to day stress. The Student Union at Tel Aviv University sensed the disconnect between its Israeli and international students as well as the opportunity to better integrate the foreigners into Israeli society. The Department of International Affairs of the Student Union has created a student-to-student program known as The Buddy System to unite its Israeli and international students. The program is run by a board of Israeli students, all of whom have been awarded scholarships by the Student Union in order to match International students with their Israeli peers and plan events, lectures, volunteering, and trips for both groups. By giving students the opportunity to build relationships with Israelis, often times within the same faculty of study, the Buddy System hopes to better connect its international students to the culture and people of Israel. The Buddy System cooperates with each international program and its faculty members to match the students and advertise events within and outside of the department. In addition to uniting students with Israelis, the Buddy System also coordinates large events in order to provide an environment for international students in separate programs to meet and interact. Lastly, the Student Union has opened all of its student services for English speaking students, including extracurricular classes, discounts, tutors, and its website. I am a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University and am currently working as an intern in the Department of International Affairs at the Student Union. The Tel Aviv University Student Union and I are very proud of this endeavor and hope to continue to provide services for international students.
I concur with some of the content in the article. Much of the learning experience has to be the burden of the student to ensure they receive their objectives at the end. I will say that there is a great disparity in the cultural inclusion aspect because it does tend to be one sided (Israeli perspective) in what is supposed to be considered a "culturally diverse" society. Taking classes that deal with Conflict Resolution in Israeli university settings is something of an oxymoron. In the past couple thousand years they have yet to settle conflicts to any satisfactory resolution that all parties can agree to and in most cases rely on barriers and reinforced stereotypes perpetuating the discord. Most American students, having lived in a free society, see this disparity and can move beyond the rhetoric without getting brainwashed. That is one of the significant cultural differences. Having studied both Arab and Israeli cultures for decades, I honestly feel that the Arab cultural perspective is more open to change and true discourse about sensitive issues than the typically hard-lined, no concession ingrained Israeli aspect.
Come study at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies where students have a full smeester or year of environmental studies courses along with a Peacebuilding and Environmental Leadership Seminar. The Student body is made up of roughly even groups of Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and English speaking students from outside the middle east- mostly North Americans. All courses conducted in English. Learn about the whole region - not just Israel. - space available for Spring semester beginning on February 22 2011
There are two reasons why there is a major disconnect between Israeli and Jewish American students. The first is the age factor. The Israeli student starts his academic career at age 21-22 while the American is in college at age 18. This is because of the Israelis military service which also matures them far beyond that of the average American student. The Israeli student also usually has to hold 1-2 jobs as well as go to class while the American student looks at his year as a vacation of sorts.
I agree with a lot of what you said but I definitely integrated with Israeli students at Hebrew University more than this article portrays is the norm. I spent almost every afternoon in the regular library in the main building and regularly sat at tables with Israelis. In fact, I met two Israeli students almost every day to do work together at a table on one of the talking floors of the library. I also lived with 2 Israelis in my apartment and even went out to Ben Yehudah St. with them. My roommate drove us! I think it's up to the individual student- if you make an effort, you can easily have a more authentic experience.
Lots of money has been invested in attracting folks who would never have traveled to Israel to do so. However, these students are to quote David Hermelin z"l "the folks standing in line with a ticket in their hand." What a lost opportunity!
I agree with some of this article, however, it is not only up to the university to provide the experience. I spent a year at Hebrew University, had the opportunity to take classes in the regular university as well as interact highly with Israeli students. I took it upon myself not to live with other English speaking students in the dorms and researched opportunities to work/volunteer/interact in normal Israeli life. I feel like this argument is very one-sided and maybe students who want a full experience should spend the time researching and connecting with people/organizations before and during their stay in Israel.