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Mission Impossible?
Teen travel to Israel is languishing. Funders and activists want to double the numbers.
Mon, 08/05/2013 - 20:00
Editor And Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

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 attended such a meeting here last week 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 experience. 

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 Should Be ‘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.

Birthright, Lapid Israel, Masa Israel Journey, Summer Programs in Israel, Teens visiting Israel, visiting Israel

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I wonder if the failure to mention the highly successful NCSY summer Israel programs was deliberate. My understanding is that there has been no significant decline in participation in those programs, some of which are geared towards the relatively "uninitiated" public high school students. Are we seeing decline of participation in non-Orthodox summer Israel programs that parallel's the overall decline of the Conservative movement? If that is the case, then the problem is much deeper and most likely irreversible.

I think most American Jews think that Taglit-Birthright is a wonderful program. I also think that displacing the teen travel experience is one of the bad byproducts as referred to above. One of the goals of this committee to increase teen travel is to broaden the Jewish connection between Israel and Americans, and to cement the relationship, not to mention helping these young Jews think about Israel before campus life. I think most people who have been to Israel during their teen years can vouch for the centrality that Israel has played in their Judaism (and secondarily their life decisions), no matter how religious.

It is not just the Israel connection though, but it is also the global connectivity and network of Jewish people that one establishes while on that teen travel that also lasts for a lifetime. The essence of Judaism seems to be community, no matter how you interpret the law. Being part of community is at the root of any of these teen travel experiences. The relationships that one makes on these Israel programs continue on and influence choices regarding colleges, political involvement, leadership training, and future Jewish community involvement. The teen experience in Israel is unique and greatly influences nearly all of the participants'
worldviews going forward.

A question about Birthright is whether or not it devalues the Israel experience by not requiring the participants to have a financial stake (what value is free?), and further, several articles have questioned whether families send the wrong message to their children by not making Israel travel and program a priority, possibly involving financial sacrifice.

Based on the words coming from Prime Minister Netanyahu's office, the government of Israel is now making it a priority to include teenagers in the cohort of supported trips, and I think that is a true positive. I hope that the American families will latch onto these efforts and underscore the importance of teen travel, and not support them only in word and perhaps money, but also by their feet and their children. It makes a huge difference

Alan - It's great to have you as part of our DOUBLING TEEN ISRAEL TRAVEL group. Kol Hakavod on your response! We are gaining momentum. We've heard from JAFI's Director General Alan Hoffman and Ilan Wagner.

This is laughable. Birthright did not make Israel cool. Birthright made Israel free. And therein lies the rub.

Since 2008, Lapid – the Coalition for High School Age Programs in Israel, has earnestly sought to raise awareness of and to significantly increase participation in quality Israel educational experiences that take place during the critical years of high school age, when Jewish identity formation is most acute, and the impact is most far-reaching. From the outset, it was understood that this can only be achieved through strategic collaboration with the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency, in addition to the well-backed college-age sector of Israel program providers (i.e. Birthright and Masa), along with funders and philanthropists. This is a classic example of "big tent collaboration".
The nearly 30 member organizations which comprise Lapid have worked tirelessly at trying to garner recognition as well as institutional support from the Government of Israel, the Jewish Agency and others, toward achieving the realistic goal of doubling the number of participants on teen trips to Israel to 20,000 every year. Collectively, Lapid has brought over 500,000 participants to Israel over the past 40+ years and has undoubtedly contributed greatly to the fabric of Jewish leadership in communities throughout the world, strengthening the connection of young Jews with Israel.
All those responsible for driving this field of teen travel to Israel forward, and for making these important meetings happen, through the Jewish Funders Network, should be commended. In addition, the welcoming news of the progressive initiatives taking place on the other side of the ocean with the "Prime Minister's Initiative" in Israel (See more at:, only add to the exciting developments we are sure to see in the field of teen travel to Israel in the near future.

This is conventional wisdom that holds less and less validity as time moves on in an ever connected yet selective world. Exposure to Israel is indeed a good thing, but what is more important is the continuation of involvement, activism, places to work and or volunteer that meet the needs and interests of these young people and that challenge is not being met.

Young people on these trips are not learning about how to defend their positions on a college campus, how to understand and parse news reports on coverage of Israel and the region. Nor are they becoming adept at linking the current state to their daily lives upon return. After a few months it becomes a memory, like a teen-tour or summer no longer has the bang it had.

Instead of trying to double the numbers going, which is a great idea, there should be a concerted effort to meet the needs post-trips and work on the learning process so that young people aren't turned off or scared off of Israel when faced by growing legions of their contemporaries on campus with information slanted from the other direction. There is much work to do for teens and for those moving on to college and the workplace...none of it can be ignored if any one part is to be truly successful.