Embracing Community Failure: High School Age Programs to Israel and the Real “No Brainer”

by Stephen Muss

A year ago, I published an angry op-ed piece in The Jewish Week about high school age-programs to Israel. One year later, I am frustrated because so many people agreed with me and yet nothing significant has been accomplished.

As I approach my 85th birthday, my vision of 50,000 teens coming to Israel each year to participate on meaningful programs designed specifically to connect them to Israel and their heritage, is, sadly, right at this moment, nowhere closer to being fulfilled than when I became the honorary chair of LAPID five years ago. I have certainly tried to make this happen, and perhaps it will someday, but in order for me to enjoy seeing my dream come true, I urge others to get into action right now.

Today I write in direct response to “The Birthright Israel flip side: Fewer high school students traveling to Israel”, (Gil Shifler, JTA, Apr 17, 2013).

Mr. Paul Reichenbach, of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), sums up the situation at the end of the article, saying “[G]iven the choice of spending $7,000 or $8,000 on a two- week trip or nothing on a 10-day trip… It’s a no-brainer.” To clarify: the programs that cost that much are 4 to 8 weeks long, not two weeks … similar in cost to many of the overnight camps in North America. But, as far as I am concerned, this is not the main issue.

There is a much greater no brainer at play here.

The issue is that we are witnessing an ongoing and increasing disconnect of our younger generations from their Jewish heritage and we are allowing this to happen. To me, the “no brainer” is that we can choose to do something about this. We can all play a role in supporting and sustaining the concept of Jewish continuity.

As Chairman of the Board of Alexander Muss High School in Israel (a school I was proud to name after my late father) and Honorary Chairman of LAPID – the Coalition for High School Age Programs in Israel, I am dedicated to bringing teens from all over the world to Israel. We are told that Jewish identity development is strongest during the high school years and that this is the best time for a meaningful trip (more than a quick visit) to Israel. Teens who are given the incredible opportunity to become familiar with the Israeli culture, connect with their heritage, and learn first-hand about the triumphs and challenges of the modern Jewish state are experiencing Israel in their critical years of making choices: choices about their college education; their level of commitment to their religion; and the degree to which they will engage with and/or advocate for Israel after high school.

How will we combat the disconcerting lack of education about and engagement with Israel among large numbers of Jewish college students today? How will these same students confront the virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activities on campuses? It is a no brainer to me (and to many Jewish educators, community leaders, and experts in the field of teen development) that teens need to be educated about and turned on to Israel before they finish high school. However, the cost of doing so must be manageable.

For 15 years, I have tirelessly been making the case for organized teen trips to Israel and have yet to get the first shekel from the Israel government toward the funding of these programs. Last year, I even addressed a special committee at the Knesset. Not surprisingly, nothing transpired.

Last year I responded to “Why Funders Need to Embrace Failure”, written by Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week in an article titled “End the Duplication on High School Israel Programs.” As a major funder, I highlighted the benefits of teen Israel experience programs and questioned who was really responsible for the “failure.” I argued for the urgent need for teen trips to Israel to be made more affordable for families who live in all countries outside of Israel. I lamented the unnecessary duplication of new initiatives and the proliferation of new Israel programs while excellent existing programs are consistently overlooked: programs which could incorporate new ideas as needed or requested by funders. Again, nothing has transpired.

In the year 2000, right before the public start of Birthright, there were approximately 20,000 teens going to Israel every year as participants on organized programs. Fast forward 13 years: the numbers are barely approaching 12,000. This year, the numbers may prove to be even lower. For purposes of Jewish continuity, the numbers need to go up, not down.

Some say that the numbers are going down because the quality of the programs is going down. This is not the case. Just ask the recent alumni of the 30 organizations that belong to LAPID. Over the last 40 years, these wonderfully diverse programs have connected more than 500,000 high school-age teens from around the world to Israel.

Most, however, blame Birthright for the decline in teen travel to Israel. Yes, it’s true that a teen in high school who participates on an organized program that is longer than two weeks is not eligible to go on a Birthright trip. And, yes, there is the “free vs. costly” component. For sure, Birthright has been a major reason for the sharp decline in the number of teens going to Israel on high school programs.

But the problem is bigger than Birthright and even bigger than Birthright and MASA combined.

While Birthright and MASA have definitely taken the lion’s share of Jewish public and private funding, the problem is a systemic one in which the Israel government, The Jewish Agency, and major funders are plodding ahead, overshadowed by a significant oversight in strategic planning. The very fact that millions of dollars are being poured into these programs with no central body tracking data of the entire field of programs that claim to connect young adults to Israel, suggests a glaringly obvious oversight in strategic direction. Who is calling the shots? Where is the evaluation? Do we even know how many participate on MASA programs as a direct result of their experiences in Israel while in high school? Why is everyone ignoring the basic logic which says: “Bring them younger, and the return on investment will be greater?”

Using business terminology, I feel that the potential for the growth and expansion of these programs is stunted by the hands of the short-sighted Israel government and The Jewish Agency, both of whom, through heavy subsidization of college and post-college programs have made conditions more than unfavorable for the high school programs. How can these crucial programs expect to survive?

Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope.

At the recent Jewish Funders Network (JFN) conference in Los Angeles, some conversations were focused on educating our people so that Israel is as central to being Jewish as Torah, Tikkun Olam, and Holidays. An even more focused conversation took place regarding how to connect more teens to Israel through organized programs. The biggest question that arose was “How do we move from talk to actually seeing results?”

The real “no-brainer” is that all the program providers, including but not limited to Birthright, MASA, LAPID, March of the Living, day schools, synagogues, and youth groups should work together and in cooperation with all the funders. Through collaboration, we could provide a universal voucher, enabling young people to choose from a wide range of high school, college, and post-college programs that promise to connect them to Israel. This may sound utopic but there is no reason why it can’t be achieved with funding from the appropriate places and a strong coalition of the willing.

I was encouraged to hear that as a result of the JFN Conference, a small and, hopefully, growing group of North American funders has started collaborating about how to double the numbers of teens currently going to Israel. It’s not exactly my global vision as described above, but it’s a start.

My 85th birthday is fast approaching. My bucket list is growing by the day, but the issue of increasing the number of young people connecting to Israel remains one of my top priorities. After writing this article, I am no longer so angry. I may even be a little hopeful. Personally, I no longer have the patience for the process needed for a “global meeting of the minds” to take shape and then actually accomplish the mission at hand. But now there seem to be others willing to put in some time, effort, and hopefully, funds to see the concept of a universal voucher become a reality. I look forward to being present when the first one is presented. It would be a great birthday present.

I also look forward to writing a sequel to this article. I think I’ll call it,
Embracing Community Success:
High School Age Programs to Israel are finally a “No Brainer!”

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  1. Deborah Applefeld, Director of Youth Philanthropy, Columbus Jewish Foundation says

    Well said. Thank you for continuing to shine a light on the need for depth over breath and meaningful first-hand Israel experience in the teen years. The Muss programs offer both. Wishing you continued success in your efforts to engage teens in a love for and understanding of Israel as a critical component of building Jewish identity at all ages.

  2. Deborah Applefeld, Director of Youth Philanthropy, Columbus Jewish Foundation says

    …and, I do indeed feel that ALL Israel programs are valuable. It is an incredible gift to our young people to have multiple entry points to the Israel experience. We are fortunate to have such a broad array of programs available and accessible at different ages, price points, seasons, points of view and expectations upon return. As kids take off for their trips this summer, “gap year,” “teen tour,” etc., it is nice that they will all come back with a different, personal take-away that they can apply to the larger Jewish community. Your thoughts on the impact of collaboration in funding and access sparked my comments. I am fond of the concept that more is more. More access equals more impact. What a great birthday tribute that WOULD be!

  3. says

    Thank you for this wonderful and important article. As an alumna of Alexander Muss High School in Israel, I can truly say a teen trip to Israel (especially a quality one) forever changed the course of my life, both personally and professionally. To shift the trend from Birthright to quality teen programs would truly change the course of Jewish youth for generations to come.

  4. says

    When Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman founded birthright, they described it as a Hail Mary pass – a desperate effort to combat the decline in Jewish identity. It was a big gamble with very real payoff. But as any football fan can tell you, a Hail Mary is not a viable offensive strategy. Birthright is a good program, but the unintended consequences of deferring Israel visits until age 18 or later must be addressed.

    I’m not sure how you can combat the largely rational behavior of parents and kids who don’t wish to sacrifice birthright eligibility. And it’s not just the money. Many teens don’t want to miss out on going on birthright because it has evolved into something of a rite of passage. The choice by funders and the State of Israel to privilege Birthright trips over other Israel experiences is puzzling on its face, and needs to be understood more deeply.

  5. says

    On Monday June 17, BlueStar will bring nearly 40 teens and college students from San Francisco to Israel to learn about Israel’s strategic challenges and to make video documentaries on their self-chosen topics on Israel. Many of our participants will be traveling to Israel for the first time. In the San Francisco Bay area, many parents can afford to pay for trips to Israel for their children, yet most choose not to do so. Why? Most parents have never been there and/or disagree with some aspect of its politics and/or are afraid to send their children.

    Through their own actions in investigative reporting and interviewing Israelis for films, our participants transform their attachment to Israel. When they return home to their families, their new enthusiasm can bring their parents along to a higher level of Judaism and connection to Israel. Some parents may even plan a trip of their own…..for a day in the future.

    Maybe the real test for Birthright is still some years off. Let’s see if Birthright alumni will be more eager to send their future teenage children to Israel than the current crop of parents.

  6. Stew Brandt says

    Very well said. As parent who sent four children through day school, Camp Ramah, countless USY conventions and USY on Wheels. Pilgrimage and Gap years in Israel truly defined how my teenagers connected to the land. One has already made Aliyah, and who knows about the others. MASA grants made a huge and helpful dent in the cost of gap programs. I do feel that financial aid would certainly benefit and encourage more families to send their teenagers to The Land, before college.

  7. Jennifer Bachman says

    I see value in all programs that bring all people to Israel. But I have to say that AMHSI was my first experience in Israel and the one that brought me to my passion for Israel and connecting people with Israel. Nothing compares with living and breathing Israel. Nothing compares with the high school years. Everyone I know who attended AMHSI feels the same way. These kids are the key. These kids are the ambassadors for Israel and for AMHSI. These new, fresh returns from the program should be the investment that AMHSI makes in bringing in new recruits. Don’t rely on the people who are farther removed – they don’t get it. I have a number of ideas and have been trying to connect with AMHSI directors since my return in 1988, and I am still as passionate about the program as then. I am still friends with some of the people I met on the program, even though we lived then, and now, in different states. Bring me on board and I will help. Bring all the alumni on board and we’ve got some real numbers.

  8. Chaver Steve says

    Does the reduction of teen travel to Israel have anything to do with parental reluctance to send their children at that age? Do Birthright participants, all over 18, need parental approval to go? Do many Birthright participants go despite parent objections? Was overcoming parental reluctance a factor in designing Birthright to apply only to trips for young people old enough to no longer require parental approval?

  9. says

    It is absolutely a no-brainer. In addition to a minimum of 4 weeks versus 10 days, when high schoolers return there is an infrastructure built in to help them process their experience, whether in day school, hebrew school, youth movements or camps. This infrastructure is built into the trip itself and into the organizations when they return. It’s not just about the bonding in israel experience, but the educational component that goes with it. These work together to create a life-long committment to Israel, no just a good feeling.

    As for parents not wanting to send their children to Israel, once we remove the financial component it disappears. I have long worked in the Jewish community. I have often heard, “Well, when they’re in university they can go on Birthright for free.” I have not heard parents who didn’t want their child to go to Israel.

  10. says

    Thank you for this great article. I could not agree with you more. We have to get our kids on their first trip to Israel before college, so that they will be prepared to defend and advocate for her when they get there. A little known exception to the Birthright Ineligibility Act, is a high-school – Federation Partnership trip to Israel. I’m working with Birthright and our partnership region, Eshkol, to put together this experience, and couple it with a weekly class. I’m looking to get the first trip off during Presidents’ Week of 2014 at a subsidized $1,500 per student. If we get kids 1st in high school, then on Birthright, then we could have a shot at a year abroad, and then we may have them hooked.

  11. says

    Rob, it would be very interesting to see data on your project, b/c it tests the underlying assumption that losing Birthright eligibility is a significant deterrent to teen Israel travel. Anecdotally, that rings true. Getting some data behind that could help shift current practices!

  12. Bob Hyfler says

    The history and debate about how and why Birthright supplanted the teen Israel experience as the darling of the organized Jewish world is an interesting tale that awaits an enterprising scholar or investigative journalist. Suffice to be reminded that history is often written by the victors.