For eight years, Rabbi Michael “Mikey” Sunshine helped some 2,000 Denver-area high school students connect with their Judaism as director of the Jewish Student Connection, a network of clubs for Jewish teens in public schools.
He is still helping high school students connect– not in Colorado, but just outside Tel Aviv — as teacher of Israeli studies and Jewish history at Alexander Muss High School in Israel.
Muss, a program of JNF, is a US-accredited high school providing Jewish students from the US and other countries intensive learning in the classroom and at historical sites throughout Israel.
Students receive credit toward their home high school graduations as well as some college credit. Students attend semester- , mini-semester- or summer-long sessions.
Sunshine believes Divine guidance may have played a big part in his successful transition from JSC in Denver to Muss in Israel.
Sunshine was first introduced to the school in Israel by Ron Werner, former JNF Mountain States president and Muss alum. He’s now president of the school.
“I realized Mikey was in touch with hundreds of unaffiliated Jewish high school students in the public schools. That’s our prime target demographic,” Werner recalls.
When Sunshine learned about the school, he was on board with recommending the program as an option for his high school students looking to expand their Jewish journey. This was reinforced by Sunshine’s participation in an educators’ trip to Muss in December, 2016.
“It blew me away,” Sunshine says. “What was Jewish Student Connection’s mission? To help Jewish kids make personal and meaningful connections with Jews, Judaism and Israel. When I went on this Muss educator’s trip, I realized this is the same mission. But this is the next step. This is bringing kids to Israel for that in depth, immersive, searching program in which they get a strong educational component in the classroom combined with on site tiyyulim (field trips) — ‘Hey, this is where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were. This is where the Jews stood their ground against the Hellenists.’”
After that educators’ trip Sunshine and his wife Ariella began toying with the idea of fulfilling their dream of spending a year in Israel, and they decided to do so.
Originally, Sunshine assumed he would be working several part-time jobs to make ends meet during his year in Israel. “’I can do anything for a year, sweeping streets . . . anything,’ I thought.”
So in June, 2018, Sunshine went to Israel for the month to try to put things in place for his and his family’s year in Israel. He thought he’d be cobbling together five or six part-time jobs. “You know why the average Israeli has four jobs?” he quips. he couldn’t find a fifth!”
But that was not to be Sunshine’s fate. He went to Muss seeking a part-time position, and he was offered a full-time, permanent teaching position. That became one of the factors that motivated the Sunshines to expand their dream from one year in Israel to staying in Israel.
Another piece of providence: When the Sunshines first explored options in Israel, they were about to sign a one-year lease on an apartment for his family, which includes four children, now ages 15, 13, 10 and eight. He was just barely able to make the housing arrangement work financially when he learned about a family in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana who wanted to live in Denver for a year, so instead of renting the apartment, they did a house swap. Ariella’s parents and sisters also happen to live in Ra’anana.
The Muss job offer and the advantageous housing situation, Sunshine says, was “yad Hashem, the hand of G-d, trying to tell us to do this.”
Now that the house-swap year is over, the Sunshines found their own place.
Making aliyah was also rather easy for the Sunshines. Ariella had already made aliyah years before, so she was already an Israeli citizen. Their two oldest children were born in Israel, and the two younger children, being born to Ariella, also are automatic citizens. Only Rabbi Mikey needed to go through the aliyah process, which he says was greatly facilitated by Nefesh b’Nefesh, an organization whose purpose is just that.
Sunshine loves his work at Muss and how it utilizes “the 4,000 years of Jewish history with Israel as the classroom, and always reflecting back on what this means to 17-year-old Jews.
“You make it exciting and fun,” he says. “It’s not just learning about a Crusader castle; we go and invade the Crusader castle, and we use the castle and its history to engage in discussions about: ‘Not only what is the history, but what does this mean to me in terms of my own Jewish identity, my involvement in the larger Jewish community, and my connection with the land and the state of Israel?’”
Jewish history is taught in chronological order, starting with Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) as a textbook. The trips correspond with the history lessons, so students will crisscross the country to visit certain sites, not based on their proximity to each other, but on their chronological place in history. It’s more expensive, but a lot more effective.
Sunshine is impressed with his Muss colleagues’ “knowledge, their intellectual curiosity and their constancy on learning more. We’re always sharing with each other, trying to figure out how do it better.”
With teenagers living on the campus apart from their families back home, the students form important relationships with the teachers.
“When the students first come, they don’t always realize what is possible in that relationship, and they’re a little bit hands off, but once they see it, they embrace it. We have a class WhatsApp group. I tell the students, ‘At night, if you have questions, just ask me.’
“The first couple of weeks, there’s no chatting, but slowly the questions start coming and I can respond, and it turns to a bit of class banter. What’s created within the classroom is not students and teacher, but a family. In my classroom, the kids started calling me ‘Abba,’ and relating to each other as siblings.”
And Sunshine is gratified.
“My family is doing great. The kids are fantastic. That part of it is the fulfillment of a dream of coming back to our homeland. I once asked a guide in Israel where his family was from. He said, ‘What do you mean? My family’s from Israel. He meant 2,000 years ago!
“So, we’re just coming back to where we belong.”
Information on Alexander Muss High School in Israel: amhsi.org or discover at amhsi.org.