If the Community Wants It, They Will Go

by Yaron Lipschitz

As the director of JCC Association’s teen travel program JCC Maccabi Israel (JMI), I am acutely aware of the need to encourage Jewish teens to visit and spend time in Israel. I am happy to report that we are actually seeing a substantial increase in our JCC Maccabi Israel numbers in contrast to the gloomy picture depicted in the April 17 JTA article, “The Birthright Israel flip side: Fewer high school students traveling to Israel”. In 2014, we are planning a JMI March of the Living trip, which will provide another Israel experience to teens.

How have we done it? By building community support. JMI can talk about how important Israel travel is for teens until we turn blue in the face, but the truth is that the community must decide this is a priority. The communities (summer camps or JCCs) are the face of the program to the families and teens, and they are the ones that sell the trip, its value and importance. Our role is to help communities ask all the right questions and supply all the answers. We help them with the message, with recruitment efforts and logistics, but most important, we engage communities in a conversation to determine where Israel travel stands in their list of priorities, and we continue the conversation to lead to a teen trip, if they don’t already have one.

That is not to say that the promise of a free Taglit: Birthright Israel trip down the road does not cause many parents and communal professionals to be hesitant about sending their younger teens to Israel. That is the most common reason we hear for not organizing a trip, far more than security concerns.

It seems we are caught with an abundance of riches: on one hand, Birthright offers an incredible opportunity to young Jewish adults who never traveled to Israel and perhaps never had the opportunity to do so. The fact that they can go on a free 10-day trip is amazing. On the other hand, we have teens in synagogues, youth movements, JCCs and camps who should be traveling to Israel as an integral part of their Jewish education and identity, and for longer periods than 10 days. What better time than the formative teenage years to give them the gift of experiencing Israel with their peers? These teens will start making meaningful Jewish decisions at a younger age. The impact of a longer trip is incredible and long lasting.

Rather than leaving thousands of teens waiting for a “free” trip sometime in the future, funds should be allocated to teen travel by the Israeli government as Gideon Shavit and others propose, or North American communities should organize locally and fundraise to make this happen. It is a long-term investment in our Jewish future and and in the health and future of North American Jewish communities.

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Comments

  1. Marilynn Rothstein says

    There is a group organizing in North America to fundraise for all teens – with the goal of doubling teen Israel travel. The 1st meeting took place in NYC on May 29th. The 1st strategic planning meeting will take place towards the end of July. The organizers of this group have been and will continue to communicate with Gideon Shavit. We are moving ahead, one step at a time…. If you have an interest in funding Teen Experience in Israel, feel free to contact me at marilynnrothstein@gmail.com.

  2. says

    You make good points based on the article. It has been frustrating in my community to see the local Federation change its automatic $500 plus $500 match scholarship program for teen travel to a need-based only program with no matching.

    Can you please supplement your statement about JCC Maccabi Israel’s expansion with the actual data? What is the definition of a substantial increase for your program? Is this an increase compared to 2000, compared to the second Intifada, or compared to recession affected summers?

  3. says

    Well put, Yaron. Visiting Israel during the impressionable high school years places the experience in the heart of teen identity development. The teens experience Israel in the critical years of making choices regarding university studies, Jewish lifestyle options, and degree of Israel engagement. Visiting Israel in the high school years is also a basis for return visits post-high school. So, the individual gets a lot out of such an unforgettable experience; his/her immediate family, friends and community all benefit from this teen’s positive life-transforming experience; Israel gains a lot out of this experience too. It’s win-win all round. Lapid – The Coalition for High School Age Programs in Israel, encompassing nearly 30 international organizations connected to teen travel to Israel, (JMI included) is a firm advocate of the basic logic which says: “Bring them younger, and the return on investment will be greater”.

  4. says

    You put into words some of what I experienced this winter as I tried to recruit for a community based trip. My conversations with parents inevitably included the questions: “How is this trip different than a Birthright trip? Why should I send my child on this trip when s/he can go for free in just a couple years?” It is really very hard to convince someone to spend thousands of dollars now when their child can experience Israel for free.

    Birthright has been such an amazing blessing for our community – given the thousands of young adults who would not have had the opportunity to experience Israel otherwise – and the impact it is beginning to have. Yet it has also raised some challenges and concerns for our community. We cannot sit back on our laurels and just assume that everyone will get to experience Israel through Birthright. Already there are many who apply to Birthright who don’t get into a trip because there just aren’t enough spaces available.

    We need to be thinking seriously about how to develop, support and implement accessible high school Israel experiences. And we need to be thinking about how to build deep relationships with Israel for Jewish youth who, for whatever reason, will not go on either a high school experience nor a Birthright trip.

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