Organized teen travel to Israel is among the top predictors for strong Jewish engagement into adulthood, according to several recent studies, but those trips can be pricey, ranging from $5,000 to more than $8,000 for a program lasting a few weeks.
But through scholarship and savings programs offered by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the Jewish Community Foundation and several additional local organizations, costs can be defrayed by more than $4,000, making teen travel to the Jewish state much more reasonable for area residents.
“We can help make travel more affordable,” said Adam Hertzman, director of marketing at the Federation. “We want to encourage kids to go to Israel.”
Hertzman estimated that more than 120 Pittsburgh Jewish teens travel to Israel every summer on organized programs, with more than 200 teens traveling to the Jewish state during the course of the entire year.
One way to mitigate the cost of those trips is through Passport to Israel, a savings account in which families deposit a minimum of $200 each year for a minimum of four years and receive a match of $100 per year for up to eight years. At the end of eight years, families that have deposited the annual minimum deposit will have saved $1,600 and will receive $800 in matching funds, resulting in $2,400 that could be used for an eligible trip to Israel.
While families are advised to open Passport accounts when children are in elementary school, new accounts can be created for children up through ninth grade.
Passport to Israel accounts are maintained by the Jewish Community Foundation, with matching funds contributed by the Sholom Comay Family Endowment.
The Federation recently moved the Passport accounts from PNC Bank to the Jewish Community Foundation to facilitate management, according to Debbie Swartz, overseas planning associate at the Federation.
About 165 families are currently participating in the Passport to Israel program, with more than 250 accounts.
“We are really seeing Passport to Israel in a larger context,” Swartz noted, adding that it is just one way for Jewish families to defray costs of teen Israel trips.
Families also can apply for additional funding from the Federation’s Israel Scholarship program, a non-need based scholarship award of $1,750 to teens and young adults going on eligible programs. Need-based funding above the $1,750 is available as well, Swartz said.
The Federation gives approximately 130 non-need-based and need-based scholarships per year on average, according to Hertzman.
Teen programs that are eligible for the funding are those that are at least three weeks long and include an academic, cultural or vocational focus. Most local and national peer-group youth trips, summer programs and gap year programs qualify.
“The connection between a love of Israel and maintaining one’s commitment to Judaism is unequivocal, backed by years of academic research,” said Daniel Snyder, chair of the Federation’s Israel Scholarships program in a prepared statement. “We’re dedicated to making sure every teen can go to Israel and obtain that kind of formative Jewish experience for themselves.”
In addition to Passport to Israel and the scholarships, Swartz is available to help families find additional community funds to aid in financing the trips, she said.
Other providers of supplemental funding could include the Zionist Organization of America, the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Pittsburgh and the Central Scholarship and Loan Referral Service of the Federation, according to Swartz.
For more information about Israel scholarships, Passport to Israel and the Federation’s Israel programs, visit jfedpgh.org/israel. For information about enrolling in Passport to Israel or applying for an Israel scholarship, contact Debbie Swartz, overseas planning associate, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-992-5208.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.