Brian Newmark couldn’t have been more excited for his daughter.
Annie, a sophomore at Harriton High School, had decided to spend Jan. 28-March 24 living in the Tel Aviv suburb of Hod HaSharon as part of an eight-week program with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. After just a few weeks, Annie called her father to say that she was seriously considering taking a gap year between high school and college to study in Israel.
To Newmark, the program did exactly what it was designed to do.
Then, things turned a little sideways.
During a video conference call on Feb. 18, AMHSI board President Ron Werner informed parents that their children would be moved off of the main Muss campus in the middle of their session to make room for incoming students of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. They would be sent to a campus in nearby Kefar Sava and brought by bus to the main campus each day.
By Feb. 24, the decision was reversed, the students informed that they would be able to return to the original campus, and many of the parents placated. However, Feb. 17-24 was a roller coaster for Annie’s parents and those of 37 other high school students, 19 of them from the Philadelphia area.
AMHSI, a pluralistic study abroad program based in Hod HaSharon, was founded in 1972 with the goal of inculcating a lifelong love of Israel. The program boasts thousands of alumni (Sheryl Sandberg, Michael Levin and Matisyahu, among them). Some Jewish day schools, like the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, have customized curricula for students who take part in their full-semester program that goes with the core Muss classes.
The students in question are part of the eight-week program — public and private school students who have individualized curricula provided by their American schools, in addition to the core Muss classes.
AMHSI has exploded in popularity in recent years, partnering with the Jewish National Fund in 2013. The Mosenson Youth Village campus, which shares common areas with some Israeli students, is not quite large enough to accommodate the vision for future growth; that’s why the Kefar Sava dorms are kept in the back pocket, so to speak, and another campus is planned in Beer Sheva.
Anat Cohen first got a whiff that something was up when she received an email on Feb. 17. AMHSI co-CEO Orit Rome sent out an email to parents, requesting their presence at a video conference call the following evening. Cohen asked if it was an emergency; no, Rome answered, but it was important that she let Rome know if she could not make the call. Cohen worried about her daughter, Sabrina, also a student at Harriton.
Prior to the call, facts mixed with rumors in a parents’ group chat on WhatsApp. Some parents were able to correctly ascertain that their children were going to be moved off of The Mosenson Youth Village campus. It was rumored that the CESJDS administration had refused to send their students to the satellite campus, prompting AMHSI to move the students who were already there, instead.
AMHSI Chair Joe Wolfson vigorously denied that was the case, and no proof has been provided for such a claim. But that it took hold in the group chat speaks to the anger that some parents felt. Newmark recalled seeing parents discuss seeking legal recourse against AMHSI, and Cohen said some were calling for resignations.
Prior to the video call, AMHSI sent out an email apprising the parents of the situation.
“There is nothing more important to us than the safety and security of our students. AMHSI is 100% confident that we are providing them the best in the new campus, locations, activities and education,” the email read. “We are committed to do our very best to ensure this change will be a positive for our students. We have enhanced the schedule and improved other programming plans.”
During the Feb. 18 video call, Werner repeated much of the same information.
Still, parents had questions, which they were told to direct to a management email. Would there be shuttles going back and forth between the two campuses during the day, given that there were often several hours between classes? Would their children be able to retain their original roommate combinations?
The information trickled out, but not at a speed that satisfied parents, nor answered the original question: How could this have happened? According to Cohen and Newmark, some parents reported that their kids wanted to come home as a result of the campus move.
“It didn’t seem very transparent at the time,” Cohen said.
When students arrived at the satellite dormitories on Feb. 23, they reported that brown water spurted from the faucets and showers. Closet space was reduced, and some rooms had not been cleaned. And as soon as students knew, so did their parents, via text message and video. Suffice it to say, the dorms were not prepared, according to Wolfson.
“I’ve been honest with parents about it: This was not handled well,” he said. “The parents had every reason and right to get upset,” he added.
As pressure mounted from parents in the U.S. and a pair that happened to be visiting their children at the time, AMHSI made a decision: The students would be moved back to the original campus on Feb. 27, following their weekly trip. Some staff rooms would be switched around, and all students would return to the original campus, without moving incoming CESJDS students.
Students are happy to be headed back, according to Newmark and Cohen, but the reality of a week lost lingers.
“Even though they were still there, and I’m sure they still had some good experiences, this was just festering the whole time and it was a huge distraction,” said Newmark, who stressed that he was impressed with the executive response after the initial 36 hours. “Someone really screwed this up at the beginning, but the senior executives at Muss have been working so hard to make this better.”
Cohen, too, is pleased that her daughter is going to be back on her original campus, but still worries what the past week would have been like had there be a true emergency.
“The key for Muss,” Wolfson said, “is doing everything we can so that when these students come back, in a year from now, two years from now, six years from now … they look back on this and say, ‘I had an incredible, transformative experience.’”