Yossi Katz would like to see Jewish kids develop a deeper sense of Jewish history — in the land where much of that history was made.
Katz, a history teacher at the Alexander Muss High School near Tel Aviv, is on a six-week speaking tour of the United States, recruiting students for the school’s 10-week residency programs for English-speaking high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors.
“We teach 4,000 years of Jewish history in chronological order, from Abraham and Sarah to Benjamin Netanyahu — and whoever will be prime minister that week,” said Katz during a Dec. 16 visit to the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.
He said the school’s aim is not to promote immigration to Israel.
“It is to make the students better understand their history so hopefully, each one of them will find a way to make a commitment to the Jewish present and future,” Katz said.
Katz spent five days in the MetroWest community. He and Ellen Goldner, the school’s regional director of admissions, spoke before teenagers at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange and at a Shabbat dinner at the Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph.
Muss offers five sessions each year, one during summer vacation. Graduates receive both high school and college credit for their studies, as well as bragging rights on their college applications.
Katz, meanwhile, bragged about the school’s diversity.
“We are a pluralistic school, with an Orthodox rabbi and a Reform rabbi on our staff, as well as some secular teachers, including one who claims he’s an atheist but also puts on tefillin every morning,” he said, sitting with Goldner in her office at The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, where she is founding and immediate past president.
“We have all kinds of role models for the kids to look up to,” Katz continued. “You don’t have to be Jewish, but obviously, most students are. The handful of non-Jews who come have built strong relationships with the Jewish people. We’ve had a few Muslim kids — but it’s rare.”
Part of the curriculum includes a visit to an Israeli Arab village “to learn about the Palestinian narrative and understand things from a different point of view,” said Katz.
Katz made aliya in 1978, served in the Israeli army, and became a boxing champion; in 1980, he said, “I needed a job. The job I got I’ve had ever since.”
He is also an author. His new work, A Voice Called: Stories of Jewish Heroism (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem), is “a Jewish Profiles in Courage,” he said, with its title taken from a poem by Hannah Senesh, the young Jewish heroine who was tortured and executed by the Nazis.
Her picture shares the cover of A Voice Called with that of Michael Levin, a Philadelphian who studied at Muss in 2001. Levin later made aliya, became a paratrooper, and, in July 2006, was killed fighting Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Muss now has 20,000 alumni. Among their ranks are members of the rock group OAR, hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, and Lauren Weisberger, author of the novel The Devil Wears Prada.
But Goldner, who has also served as president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, has a more personal connection. Her son and daughter are both alumni.
“This is an amazing program, and it was life-changing for my kids,” said Goldner. “Neither one was very intrigued with Hebrew school, but going to school in Israel for just two months really shaped their Jewish identity.”
Goldner is currently accepting applications for upcoming classes. Interested students and their parents can contact her at email@example.com or at 201-213-6682.