Students on exchange to Israel weather a trying time

David Feinberg, 16, a junior at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, flashes a peace sign while he and fellow students walk in the desert of southern Israel.
David Feinberg, 16, a junior at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, flashes a peace sign while he and fellow students walk in the desert of southern Israel. (Alexander Muss High School)
Posted: November 22, 2012

For three decades, juniors at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr have been going to Israel for a taste of life in the Jewish state.

For the 50 students there since August and due to return to Pennsylvania next week, the recent exchange of missiles between Israel and Gaza has heightened the intensity of their trimester abroad.

"This has been quite a turning point for them," said Debbie Albert of Dresher, whose son David Feinberg, 16, is a student. "They are really seeing Israel like an Israeli. They are understanding they have to learn where the bomb shelter is and what to do in case the siren goes off."

Living on a campus in Hod HaSharon, a central area that has not been a target of Palestinian fire, the 20 boys and 30 girls are studying Hebrew and Israeli history and culture.

Reached by phone in his dorm Tuesday, Feinberg said the students feel that Israel is on a war footing but "nobody is, like, freaking out. . . . We've had a taste of peaceful times and a taste of not-so-peaceful times. We've seen two very different sides of Israel."

In a recent update for parents, Chaim Fischgrund, the director of Alexander Muss High School, Barrack's affiliate school in Israel, wrote: "Unfortunately . . . we have had to contend with security-related situations on many occasions."

He cited the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the war in Lebanon in 1982, the intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, the war in Lebanon in 2006, and Israel's incursion into Gaza in 2008, which, he said, "most resembles the situation . . . at present."

He assured parents that the nation's main airport "has never been shut down, even when Israel was facing a general war." He predicted that a potential ground invasion of Gaza would be dangerous for the troops but would not increase the risk to the students. He said they would be sent home early only if the U.S. State Department authorized an evacuation of nonessential personnel.

"At present the embassy in Tel Aviv has instructed families in the south to move [north] to Herzeliah," he wrote, but it has not told them to leave the country.

Marcie Ziskind of Center City is a member of Society Hill Synagogue. She said her youngest son, Lev, 16, whose name in Hebrew means "heart," had looked forward to the trip to Israel since sixth grade.

"We called him because we were in synagogue on Saturday. Everyone was concerned, and it got me a little worried," she said. "But he is doing really well. I am happy he is getting a little taste of this. We all understand the risks."

Sharon Levin, Barrack's head of school, said that well before the current spasm of violence, she planned to go to Israel to escort the students home next week. She arrived last Friday and went directly to the Muss campus to join the students for the sabbath.

"As an educator, I know that what sticks with students is experiential education," she said Tuesday. "I would not have chosen for the kids to experience Israel this way. But I know this will really drive home everything they have learned about modern Israel. The risks, the constant danger, the brave people.

"We are a Zionistic school, founded in 1946, even before the state of Israel. That's part of our mission and our school's philosophy. Our students are living the school's mission right now."


Contact Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.

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