Far before the traditional June commencements, 43 seniors at Rockville's Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School celebrated their graduation Sunday after wrapping up a grueling semester of double credits.

The expedited course load will allow these early graduates to travel next week to Israel, where they will test their knowledge of Judaism, Hebrew, Jewish history and law, Rabinnics, the Bible, English, math and science in a work-study program.

Senior Ian Silberman, 17, said he is looking forward to "not only learning the culture, but living it."

The four-month program, arranged through an arm of the Jewish Theological Seminary known as the Ramah Commission, is a strong bridge between high school and college for the students, who come from Maryland, the District and Virginia, said Assistant Principal Ruth H. Binn. The school has classes from kindergarten through senior high school.

This is the 10th year of the Israel-study program, which is intended to be the culmination of the students' 12 years of Judaic studies at the small private school endowed by Washington real estate developer Charles E. Smith.

The students will spend two months living with a family in Israel and two months living on a kibbutz, a communal farm, or moshav, a settlement in which individuals own land that is farmed cooperatively. None will live on the West Bank or the Gaza Strip because of recent unrest there, school officials said. Many of the teen-agers interviewed said they believe that scattered incidents of violence have been blown out of proportion by the media. "There's this huge misconception that soldiers are regularly taking food and water away from women," Silberman said.

"Soldiers walk with guns all over in Israel . . . . but there is a real sense of security and safety. Everyone feels like family," said senior and school newspaper editor Sharon Zuckerman.

Orientation to life in Israel will begin in Jerusalem, where the students will engage in six to eight hours of volunteer work each week, pursue an independent study project under a tutor's guidance, make day excursions, participate in an archeological dig, speak Hebrew to Israelis on the street, attend cultural events and socialize with Israelis. These experiences will be supplemented by formal classes in Hebrew, contemporary Israel and the Bible.

Senior Josh Feinberg expressed confidence in his ability to communicate. "I don't think you can get any better preparation than to speak" Hebrew with Israelis, he said.

While living on kibbutz or moshav, the students will work a full day in jobs that might include picking crops, assembling machine parts in a factory, scrubbing floors, cooking or attending to small children in the community nursery.

Seniors also will travel to places of interest, such as the Jewish fortress Masada, site of a mass suicide during a prolonged siege by the Romans from 72 to 73 A.D.

During their final months, the students will get an introduction to the role of the Israeli army through hiking, lectures and fitness training, and will take hikes.

For many of the seniors, the most important aspect of the program is an opportunity to contribute to their ancestors' homeland. "Giving money is not enough . . . . In America, most kids go from high school to college. But Israeli students get one year of technical training, then go into the army for three years if they're male and two years if they're female," Feinberg said.

Senior Ari Wilkenfeld, a District resident who has been to Israel several times, said Israeli teen-agers are less sheltered, more patriotic and less materialistic than their American counterparts.

And what does this group most look forward to? "Well . . . ," Silberman hedged, "everyone has this big idea that going off to Israel is going to be one big {party}, but the truth is we'll be expected to give a lot of ourselves."