Create Aliyat HaNefesh (Jewish Teen Trips) to Israel

nfty israelby Rabbi Paul Kipnes

In a recent post, Deborah Coltin, Executive Director at the Lappin Foundation, writes that regarding teen Israel trips, Full Subsidy is the Only Way to Go. She argues that “JAFI’s belief that a heavily subsidized trip will significantly increase teen travel to Israel, is an illusion.”

Looking to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Epic Israel experience as evidence (only 13 teens have registered for the program), Ms. Coltin contends “that anything less than a full subsidy will not attract teens en masse to travel to Israel.” She points to the impressive 102 teen participants on the Lappin Foundation-funded Y2I community trip as proof that it can work.

Along with so many rabbis, educators, youth professionals and Jewish leaders from around the continent, I share with Ms. Coltin the desire for en masse travel of young people to Israel on multi-week trips. (Just a week after reading the Ten Commandments in the Torah, I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I covet those full subsidies for my own community kids.)

Summer Teen Trips are the Way To Go

Summer teen trips – for 24-36 days – have a far better chance of bonding our teens to Israel, and quite frankly their future Jewish lives, than a 10-day trip during college. (Semester study programs like the Union for Reform Movement’s NFTY-EIE or the Alexander Muss High School in Israel also deserve significant funding attention).

While Birthright is a fabulous step toward deepening Israel-Diaspora connections, the brevity of the trip (and the concurrent Israel-experience weakening “drink your way through the Holy Land” phenomenon that occurs whenever college students encounter the lower Israeli drinking age) impedes deeper exploration of the land, its people and its reality.

The lackluster Federation experience may stem from many quarters, not the least of which is that there is no longer any real constituency or connection to an LA community trip. Moreover, the need did not exist to create anew. Instead of creating ex nihilo, we could have been capitalizing on the successes of established programs to transform our numbers.

Aliyat HaNefesh: A Birthright for Jewish Teens

Let’s invest in our teens using programs already existent. It is time to create an Aliyat HaNefesh (Jewish Soul Teen Trips) organization, similar to Birthright/Taglit and Masa Israel, which would set standards, allocate subsidies, and pool marketing resources for teen trips to Israel. Like Birthright and Masa Israel, Aliyat HaNefesh could publicize the teen Israel experience in general, funneling the teens and their families to a host of appropriate programs.

Yes, let’s take those same dollars – full or partial subsidy – and pour them into existing, time-tested trips with built in constituencies and marketing programs and the success could be phenomenal.

Subsidizing Existing Teen Trips Makes Educational and Economic Sense

NFTY, USY, BBYO, NCSY, Ramah, and Young Judea and other national youth programs are the natural subcontractors. They run strong, respected Israel teen trips. While their combined numbers have dropped due to the very real costs (and lure of future full subsidy Birthright experiences), these organizations (and others I’m sure) have the reputation and the expertise to turn out great numbers for fully or highly-subsidized trips.

Think about it:

  1. They already have constituency. A vast number of Jews make their way through synagogues at some point in their lives. Synagogues could spread the word about the availability of future teen Israel trips just as parents are contemplating how to keep their post-B’nai Mitzvah youth connected.
  2. They already know how to run trips. NFTY and other teen Israel programs are well known for their educational thoughtfulness and their strong infrastructure. Why recreate the wheel when the best trips already exist. Let’s just funnel the young people – with full or high subsidies – to these trips.
  3. Their educational programs are targeted to the constituency. These trips have years of experience teaching their teens about Israel in a pedagogically sound, pluralistic way.
  4. Their concern and management of safety is unsurpassed. Next to cost, safety and security are parents’ top concerns. Yet, I can look parents in the eye to tell them, for example, that sending teens on a NFTY Israel trip is a no brainer because their experience and current infrastructure combine to create unassailable safety situations.
  5. They have the ability to do targeting marketing. Denominational, youth and camp organizations, increasingly connected to families through centralized databases, have access to the youth that have come through their synagogues and camps. Their targeted marketing – to alumni and their families, beginning well before the young people become teens – could bring the teen home to Israel.

Im tirzu ein zo aggadah. If we will it, it is no dream.

Herzl dreamed of a Jewish state and it came to be. Forward thinking funders imagined a birthright to Israel and it came to be, because its time was right.

We now see that we need to deepen the Israel experience by going longer and younger. So let us now dream about a JAFI-partnership, philanthropist-funded, Federation-supported Aliyat HaNefesh to bring hundreds of thousands of teens to Israel for extended trips while they are still young enough to learn and connect.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is rabbi of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, California and blogs at Or Am I?

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  1. Marilynn Rothstein says

    NEXT STEPS? How does the “Aliyat HaNefesh: A Birthright for Jewish Teens Foundation” actually get started? Who would create the guidelines for the distribution of the funds? With the understanding that there are some excellent Israel programs, like Alexander Muss High School in Israel, which provide an even more in depth, longer than 24-36 day experience in Israel during the summer and throughout the school year, we need to make sure that the teen participants in these programs get the benefit of a fully or, at least, partially subsidized program as well. Rabbi Kipnes – the group of philanthropists and foundations that grew out of the Jewish Funders Network are looking for additional leadership. Is that you? If not, who?

  2. Elan Ezrachi says

    Nice Idea, but try to find a better name. All this needs to be brought to the planning table of what is called “the Prime Minister’s Plan”

  3. Joel Schindler says

    Such an entity already existed. It was called Israel Experience, Inc. and was founded in 1996 as a partnership of the Charles Bronfman Foundation (the CRB Foundation), UJA, CJF, the Jewish Agency and the Government of Israel through the Ministry of Tourism. I served as the first CEO of the organization. It was created to elevate teen youth travel to Israel on the Jewish communal agenda and included on its Board representation of the umbrella organization representing all the Jewish youth groups mentioned above. The organization had a National Marketing Director, 3 regional offices in LA, Atlanta and Chicago as well as a national office in NY, explored new types of trips recognizing the realities of Jewish teen summer schedules, provided marketing tools to all the Israel Program providers and suggested creative, new programs to meet multiple needs of Jewish teens (e.g. an Israel program with a Kaplan SAT prep program so you didn’t need to decide between one or the other). It had initial success in increasing teen travel to Israel but eventually “morphed” into Birthright Israel (after my departure) for several reasons. One was the partnership was not strong and partners were there more because they had to be, not because they wanted to be. Charles Bronfman, who served as Chairman of the Board, did not have the ability to really get all the partners aligned. The trip providers were mostly educators who could not come to terms with shorter trips (then most teen trips were 8 weeks) that were still educationally valid and rigorous and refused to relinquish control of content. High school students have complicated schedules, different priorities and don’t decide alone – they live in their parent’s home. Finally, the philanthropists led primarily by Michael Steinhardt at that time decided they did not want to deal with a multitude of trip providers who were difficult to engage and a participant population that was difficult to find and convince. Offering free trips to college kids who could be found in more concentrated numbers on college campuses and would otherwise go to Cancun or Daytona beach for spring break anyway was a much easier sell. The fact that the 10-day trips had no substantive content was not really addressed. It was all about the numbers – getting college kids to Israel. Unfortunately, “Israel as Theme Park” has gotten numbers to Israel at huge expense and has done little to educate participants about Israel, Judaism or the Jewish people. A the same time, it has decimated the once thriving teen programs. Until there is both communal will and serious financial resource put in place to revive the teen Israel program enterprise, it will be difficult to resurrect.