NEW YORK — Common sense suggests that one of the most effective ways of heightening Jewish identity and Israel engagement among young people is through summer teen trips to the Jewish state. The younger our kids are exposed to the miracles and challenges of Israel today, the better, and longer, their connection. And the more involved they and their families will be.
But the reality is that summer travel programs to Israel for teens are “languishing,” according to experts in the field, who cite the fact that the numbers have decreased dramatically from 2000, when about 20,000 American teens visited Israel as participants in organized programs, to about half that number today. They cite as factors the economic slowdown of the last five years, security concerns and the sameness over the years of many of the existing programs.
But the primary reason for the decline cited by tour providers and other professionals — though they are loath to discuss it publicly — is, ironically, Birthright Israel, the most creative and successful effort to promote Israel engagement among young people.
Indeed, the very success of the free 10-day trips for 18-to-26-year-old diaspora Jews seems to have had the unfortunate ripple effect of discouraging families from sending their children on pricey summer teen programs. “Why should we spend several thousand dollars to send our children to Israel now,” parents reason, “when we can wait a few years and send them on Birthright for free?
Reinforcing the concern that Birthright’s success is hurting teen trips is the fact that participation in such programs precludes eligibility for Birthright, which is aimed at those who have not been on group trips. (The precipitous decline in the number of participants in summer teen programs coincides with Birthright’s history, which began in 2000, when the teen trips had their highest numbers. It also overlaps with the second intifada, though, which was a major factor in reduced travel to Israel.)
But any criticism, even implicit, of funding Birthright to the exclusion of other Israel engagement efforts, is considered unwise, if not political suicide, because the project is so heavily backed by the community’s biggest and most influential philanthropists as well as the Jerusalem government.
‘Birthright made Israel cool’
So what, if anything, can be done to boost awareness and support for teen programs, particularly among foundations and Jewish leaders?
A small but influential group of funders and activists, meeting through the Jewish Funders Network, has been exploring the issue in the last few months, hoping to double the number of high school students traveling to Israel.
I recently attended such a meeting here with about 20 lay and professional experts whose common goal was to raise awareness and funding for these teen summer programs. The discussion was thoughtful and focused, and the participants knew the field well. There was no bitterness expressed toward Birthright. Rather, there was recognition and gratitude that the program’s success has opened up other opportunities for innovation, spurring ways to engage young people on Israel and their own Jewish connections.
“Birthright made Israel cool,” one participant observed. “It’s viewed as a quality rite of passage.” She said it was time to emulate the organization’s inventiveness.
The group agreed that the cost of the summer programs clearly was an important issue for families, but not necessarily the issue. In fact, it was said that some funds set aside in communities for teen programs in Israel go unspent. One idea that sparked animated discussion centered on the premise that young people and their parents are keenly interested in educational opportunities that strengthen a student’s academic profile in applying to college. The consensus was that the opportunity for teens to take a science, medicine or technology course during the summer at an Israeli university would make a summer program highly appealing.
Some felt there was a viable market for a for-profit enterprise offering college-prep programs in Israel.
“It’s less about focusing on Israel per se,” someone offered, “and more about convincing parents to invest in their kids, and answering the teen who asks, ‘What’s in it for me?’ ”
The group also agreed that their target audience should be young people who would be most affected by a summer experience in Israel, meaning those not already actively involved in Jewish life. And there was virtual consensus that the ideal length of these summer programs is three weeks. Less time then that is too short to warrant the expense, and longer programs limit choices for teens interested in more than one summer.
One idea being floated by Scott Shay, a local businessman and lay leader who co-chaired last week’s session, is based on extending the concept of a free trip to Israel. He has proposed giving young people an Israel travel voucher on their 16th birthday to be used until the age of 25 for any combination of the many Israel programs available during the high school or college years, or after.
Others would like to see Birthright ease its restriction on those who have been to Israel on teen trips, perhaps having them serve as assistant counselors on the free 10-day visit.
Teen programs ‘a no brainer’
Marilynn Rothstein, director of alumni programs and board development for the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, which offers extended programs during the academic year for students from the United States and other countries, co-chaired last week’s meeting. Her father, Stephen Muss, has expressed frustration over the ongoing lack of support from major funding sources, including the Israeli government, for LAPID — the Coalition for High School Age Programs in Israel, which he chairs. He says support for teen programs should be “a no brainer” because “Jewish identity development is strongest during the high school years” and that is when students decide where to apply for college, which in turn impacts on their degree of Jewish identity and religious commitment.
Rothstein, more diplomatic than her feisty father, said after last week’s meeting that “there is still much work to be done” toward the goal of doubling teen travel to Israel, but added that “with ongoing and growing interest of some philanthropists and foundations,” plus Jerusalem’s talk of increasing funding for identity initiatives, “the future is looking brighter and we are moving forward.”
The advocates for teen programs hope to create a national buzz around their issue, and they would love to be associated with Birthright, a proven brand, asserting that the overall communal goal should be to attract more young people to Israel, period. And there are real benefits, they say, in programs for impressionable high school students who spend weeks there, not just days.
For those convinced that turf issues will trump the logic of expanding the age borders for free or subsidized Israel travel, consider the early, rocky relationship between Birthright and Masa, the Jewish Agency-sponsored project of
extended (five to 12 months) study, volunteer or internship programs in Israel for 18-to-30-year-olds. When Masa started in 2004, major Birthright funders were strongly opposed, arguing that any funds set aside for the project should go instead to Birthright, which had tens of thousands more applicants than it could handle because of financial constraints. Over time, and with a major infusion of funding from Sheldon and Miriam Adelson to ease the waiting list, the turf tensions eased and Birthright and Masa are seen now as Step One (the free 10-day initial experience) and Step Two (the extended stay, mostly coming from Birthright alumni), respectively, of an overall approach.
Let’s hope that funders and planners will see the rationale for extending that approach further, with teen programs — either in the summer or academic year — becoming the new Step One of what will be a three-stage plan to engage, educate and deepen Israel engagement among our youth.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)