Reaching Out Before Birthright

Newly launched iCenter starts teen internship and works to improve Israel education for the k-12 set.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Special To The Jewish Week

 Hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated to encourage young Jewish adults to participate in a free, 10-day Israel experience. Now, attention is being paid to the pre-Birthright set: teens who visit Israel as part of a day school, camping or youth group trip.

This fall, the iCenter — an organization begun three years ago that sees itself as the national address for k-12 Israel education — will launch the MZ Teen Israel Internship, a national leadership program for American Jewish teens returning from summer Israel experiences.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” says Anne Lanski, the iCenter’s executive director. “Alumni of Israel trips are an under-tapped resource we need to leverage. Their authenticity, the connections [to Israel and to Judaism] they formed and their experience is a really powerful educational tool that should be cultivated and shared.”

Three dozen teens will be chosen to serve as positive voices for Israel in their own peer networks by initiating Israel engagement projects within their home communities. The teens will each be paired with a mentor who will help the teens identify projects to pursue and follow up on their progress. The teens will also help to design a national Israel conference for North American high school students, which will be held in spring 2012.

A collaborative project with the BBYO youth group, the Jewish Student Union and the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, the teen fellowship is funded by the San Francisco-based MZ Philanthropic Fund. The goal, says program director Aliza Goodman, is to help teens develop and articulate the language to engage friends in their Israel experience and encourage them to visit Israel, too. Otherwise, she says, life takes over and “the Israel experience becomes a fun but distant memory.”

While statistics are hard to come by, insiders estimate that between 7,500 and 12,000 Jewish teens, ages 13 to 18, visit Israel each year. The iCenter wants to increase these numbers by encouraging day schools, camps and youth groups to take Jewish teens to Israel as part of the educational experience.

But it also wants these institutions to think about how they approach Israel education, particularly as many young American Jews feel increasingly detached from Israel, and as studies show that even Modern Orthodox kids feel somewhat brainwashed by the pro-Israel education that they’ve received.

“Sometimes, as Jewish educators, we feel so passionate about Israel that we superimpose our opinions or agendas on the educational process,” says Lanski. “You never hear someone complain that they were brainwashed by a math teacher.”

The iCenter, a Chicago-based organization that was founded by the Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation, aims to place Israel education as an integral component of Jewish education — and not merely a subject taught by teachers who focus primarily on Israeli or Jewish history. The Israel experience, according to the iCenter, plays a key role in Jewish identity formation.

“We see [Israel education] as something that belongs to all of us as Jewish educators,” says Lanski, who founded Shorashim, a longtime Birthright trip operator, and who has more than 25 years of experience in the field.

Until now, the organization has focused primarily on professional development. Earlier this month it organized iCamp, a three-day gathering of educators from North America and Israel. The goal: to develop and share ways in which educators, lay leaders and other professionals working with teens can foster an emotional and intellectual connection to Israel among Jewish youth.

iCenter has also launched a concentration in Israel education for graduate students pursuing a master’s degree in Jewish education at six universities: Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Brandeis, New York University and the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies.

When Lanski meets with administrators at day schools, “we ask who does Israel education, and the answer is ‘nobody.’”

Israel education should not be limited to advocacy training or taught as an isolated subject, Lanski says. “Every educator has his or her own connection to Israel, but they haven’t been enabled and empowered to bring that to the forefront in an organic way.”

For the iCenter, the future of Israel education is in “enabling experiences, engagement and the acquisition of knowledge” so that young Jews develop a deeper understanding of their heritage and their Jewish identity. “It’s the moment when a kid will say ‘we’ instead of ‘they’ when they refer to Israel,” she says.

The voice of a young person is “very powerful,” says Lanski. “It’s powerful for younger kids to hear teenagers speak [about their connection to Israel]. It’s powerful for us as adults. And it’s powerful for peers; kids can serve as educators, too.”