When Bushey couple Rebecca and Alan Shorrick tell people their son Noah is studying abroad, “at what university”? is the understandable response.
There is surprise when they explain that Noah is 15 and in Israel, benefiting from one of the diverse initiatives supported by Wizo UK, which celebrates its centenary this year.
He is one of 38 Jewish pupils from almost as many countries taking part in the Anières programme for gifted teenagers in a Wizo village in the Jezreel Valley.
They are joined in their engineering training by disadvantaged young Israelis and many continue their education at the prestigious Technion in Haifa, Israel’s university for science and technology.
Meeting Noah in his classroom, he comes across as confident and articulate, unfazed by being thousands of miles from home.
“I was at Yavneh College and Hertsmere Jewish Primary before I came here,” he says.
“It was my decision. I wasn’t happy with the UK education system. I wanted to study the Bagrut [the Israeli equivalent of A-levels] and I’ve always wanted to make aliyah.”
As part of the programme, Noah has been studying robophysics — as it sounds, a combination of robotics and physics. He says he would not be able to study it anywhere else.
For him, “the upsides are that here I have 20 Russian-speaking brothers and sisters who I can ask any question I need to about my homework.
“They are insanely bright. There is one kid who will look at my geometry questions and know the answers straight away.
“Everyone has their own thing they are brilliant at and we all help each other out,” he adds, showing off a robot he has made.
“The downsides are that we see each other constantly. It is like having 37 siblings you live with and go to school with. It is intense.”
Back in Bushey, the Shorricks say they are delighted at how their son has adapted to Israeli life.
“We are quite a religious family — shomer Shabbat,” Mr Shorrick explains. “Noah was struggling a bit with his Jewish identity in the UK.
“We were on holiday in Israel and a group of students walked past. They were a mixed group, some Charedi, some secular, some moderate.
“He turned to us and said: ‘Here I can be any type of Jew I want to be and fit in’.”
Noah, then 14, decided to research options for studying in Israel and present them to his parents.
His American classmate Aandeep Harash says the appeal of Anières is the quality of learning.
“In Kansas the education was good but it wasn’t good enough. As an American there are things here that annoy you. Like when the water turns off, or the lights — they are things that don’t happen often in the States. But I would rather be here for the education.”
Although he misses his family, he “goes back to see them every Pesach and summer”.
School director Galia Aleph says that its global intake “learn Hebrew, build lifelong friendships with peers and develop a lasting relationship with the land”.
Beyond the education and accommodation, there are extracurricular activities, and even counselling where required.
Wizo UK helps fund 150 of the total 270 students who live in the dormitories, some of whom are considered “at risk”.
The school also educates a further 1,400 young people from the area.
Another school Wizo UK supports is a vocational high in Beit Hakerem, Jerusalem, where three former pupils explain how it transformed their lives.
Nofar, 24, is wearing her army uniform, her gun in its holster. She serves in the Border Police, one of the IDF’s most respected units. Her eyes are bright and her hair sleekly styled.
She is a very different person to the troubled 14-year-old who came to the school.
A truant who lacked confidence, she could not focus when she did attend lessons and had limited aspirations for her future.
“I was struggling in normal school,” Nofar recalls. “I found it hard with 42 children in my class and I wanted to do something practical.
“My teachers were not enthusiastic and I couldn’t sit still in class,” she adds, laughing at her then disruptive behaviour.
“I changed when I came here. I grew up. I matured.” Enrolling in the school’s hairdressing programme, she studied traditional subjects alongside her vocational option.
The big difference was having teachers who believed in her.
“You only need one person to give you the strength and tools to break that cycle.
“When I came here I had no passion, no potential. Then every day I wasn’t at school, someone called me to check where I was. They were determined that I succeed.”
Nofar says the confidence the school instilled in her has been useful in her IDF role helping to protect Israel’s borders.
When facing aggressive situations, she draws on her background.
“I know what it feels like to be angry and it is the most satisfying thing when I defuse that in others.
“I’m often more sensible than some of the men I work with. I am calmer.”
Bat-El, 23, a graduate of the culinary vocational programme, shows me around the school that gave her the grounding to become a successful chef, running a business catering corporate events and simchahs.
Rejected by her strictly Orthodox family, she reflects that in a different environment, she would not have completed her education and would “probably be on the street.
“I felt nothing about myself. I was alone.”
Her eyes light up when she enters the kitchen she trained in, running to embrace her cookery tutor Tamar Elkana.
“This is my family,” she says, praising her teachers for giving her reason to live.
“The first emotion I feel in the morning is that I can do something.
“I used to think I couldn’t trust people. I was angry and sad. When the school took me on I saw that they never give up on you.”
Becky Cohen — who taught English to both Bat-El and Nofar — discusses how the school’s ethos differs from others.
“Two days ago a child threw a chair at me. In a normal setting they might be excluded; another school might write them off.
“Not here. Instead I said to the child: ‘I will not give up on you’.
“What you get here is people fighting for you and in the end you don’t want to let them down.”
Kathy Sagi, director of Wizo’s family welfare division in Israel, notes the huge strides the charity has made in protecting children.
“We have eradicated child labour, for example, but the role of women and girls in society still needs work. We have to get more [strictly Orthodox] girls into school. We have to work to change how women are represented in society.
“Even today, [in some areas] women and men can’t sit together on a bus or walk on the same sidewalk.”
Wizo UK vice-chair Ronit Ribak-Madari says the Jerusalem school is a major focus of the charity’s centenary year.
But as well as fundraising challenges in a competitive market, she believes Wizo needs to adapt to the changing role of women in society.
“As an organisation with hundreds of volunteers across the country, we need to develop a way forward when it comes to working women, who have limited availability but would like to become involved.
“As society evolves, we need to be sure we are able to fit in with the requirements of our future volunteers and supporters.”
Wizo UK chair Michele Pollock adds that supporting and nurturing Israel’s young has long been the charity’s goal.
“Investing in them and their education is key to Israel’s future.”
The UK division helps to support 800 social welfare and educational projects in Israel, including outreach centres for “at risk” teenage girls.
At a centre in Tel Aviv I meet house mother Rosa Revivo, 59, who says the girls “come here after school and we feed them dinner. If they didn’t come here they would be on the street, mixing with the wrong people, maybe involved with drugs or crime.
“They come from broken homes, homes that are not safe, or where they are neglected or face violence.
“Sometimes the meal they have here is the only hot and fresh food they get all day.”
And in Afula, the Wizo centre provides a space for Arab and Jewish women in the neighbourhood to get to know one another and build bridges between their communities.
Wizo’s backing for the centre reflects an ambition to work with all Israeli citizens.
Form more information about Wizo UK: http://wizouk.org/