He taught English to 10-year-olds in Upper Nazareth, worked on a camel farm near Dimona, studied in Jerusalem and participated in simulated basic training on an Israeli army base.
"I don't know any other American kid who went around carrying an M-16 for two months," he said. "Or had as much immersion in Israeli society."
Ari, 19, now a freshman at UC Davis, was one of 300 high school graduates participating in Year Course, a nine-month program of Young Judaea
, the Zionist Youth Movement of Hadassah that has sent more than 5,000 teenagers to Israel since its founding in 1956.
Young people like Ari have been going to Israel for decades, but the numbers are likely to increase substantially with the recent introduction of Masa Israel, a new long-term funding initiative between the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel and its partner organizations worldwide that is targeted to reach $100 million per year, perhaps as early as 2008.
At a cost of about $13,000 to $18,000 for each student, these programs provide a break between high school and college and can include study, travel, work and community service. They allow students time for reflection, personal growth and often new or renewed religious commitment.
Masa, Hebrew for journey, started funding students who qualified on a need-basis in 2004-05, subsidizing more than 100 approved five- to 10-month Israel programs that assist 18- to 30-year-olds in building a solid connection to Israel. This year, Masa is helping to send 7,000 young adults worldwide to Israel, with hopes of sending 20,000 a year by decade's end.
According to Masa director Dr. Elan Ezrachi, "Our main goal is to enable young adults from all over the world to have an extended period in Israel and, by doing so, to strengthen Jewish identity, build up a connection to Israel and invest in their future roles as leaders in their home communities. And, from an Israeli perspective, they get a taste of the idea of aliyah."
The numbers of students taking advantage of such programs historically have not been large among Reform and Conservative Jews, according to Joseph Blassberg, director of career counseling at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles. He said Milken sends about three or four graduates annually on one-year, post-high school programs and has found that colleges and universities generally approve students' requests to defer admission until the following September.