Boosting Teen Trips to Israel

by Dan Zeller

Call it revolutionary or call it idealistic, the aims are very practical and the facts are plain to see: every year, about 12,000 Diaspora Jewish teens come to Israel on a range of Lapid high school-age programs. Close to 30 organizations that run high-school age programs and encompass among them the majority of teens coming to Israel annually have already joined the Lapid coalition. For these young participants, the journey represents a life changing experience.

Over the past 35 years, high-school programs are estimated to have brought over 500,000 teens to Israel, a milestone celebrated recently at the annual Lapid World Jewish Youth Festival, which took place in Herzliya, coinciding with celebrations of 150 years of Herzl’s Zionism and attracting a turn-out of over 4,000 enthusiastic Jewish teens from around the world. “But these figures only reflect what can be done without government funding,” says Ovad Yehezkel, former cabinet secretary and now a strategic adviser helping to launch the Lapid program.

“The State of Israel funds excellent programs such as Birthright [Taglit] and MASA, but doesn’t spend a single shekel toward bringing high-schoolers to Israel,” laments Yehezkel. “We’re embarking on a series of steps to change that situation, and to hopefully make the high school age trip to Israel a more affordable possibility for Jewish families in the Diaspora.”

No funding

Lapid (meaning “torch” in Hebrew) was founded in 2008 and today is an official Israeli non-profit organization comprising international organizations which seek institutional and governmental recognition and funding for short-term program participants, who usually stay in Israel for three to six weeks and pay anywhere from $1,000 to $1,750 per week.

Lapid is made up of heavyweight organizations such as Young Judaea, Maccabi World Union, JCC Associations and Bnei Akiva, as well as the Reform Movement’s national youth group, NFTY, among others. For years, these organizations have been bringing upwards of 12,000 teenagers annually to Israel, but have received no recognition, let alone any streamlined funding. “This is precisely why we united,” explains the co- alition’s voluntary Chairman, Gideon Shavit, formerly the Chief Executive Officer of the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, one of Lapid’s founding member organizations.

Because Lapid programs deal with a younger crowd, the logic goes that the experience creates an attachment to Israel and Judaism at a formative period, when it will have more impact. High school age, after all, is when political ideas are examined for the first time, when dating habits are formed. When Lapid participants encounter the virulent anti-Israel propaganda that we see today on campuses, they are better equipped to counter it.

A myriad of programs

The main benefit of Lapid’s high school-age programs is the unique impact that they have on the Jewish Diaspora participants. The programs offered can be divided into three general categories: touring, academic and specialty programs. Constant innovation is going on in order to adapt and modernize the gamut of Lapid program options to the evolving interests and needs of the teenage community, with many programs including encounters with Israeli peers.

When participants come to Israel in high school, they meet kids from all over the United States and other countries, and get a sense of themselves as people, as members of a community and as Jews, as well as deepening their connection to Israel. Because they are still in high school, they can implement these new understandings at a young age, which can significantly impact their future decisions. Another important advantage is their impact on the subsequent interest in college and post-college long-term experiences in Israel.

Meir Hoyzman, North American Division Director of Israel Experience–Educational Tourism Services Ltd., a Lapid member, further emphasizes this sentiment. “Lapid’s goal is to enable as many Jewish teens as possible the chance to get to Israel at an earlier stage in their lives. By gaining a deep and meaningful Israel experience, a teenager will most likely make Israel and Judaism a significant part of his or her life.”

Scholarships needed

High school-age programs represent one of three major segments of programming in Israel for young people from abroad, along with MASA, which is the long-term college and post-college segment, and Taglit-Birthright Israel’s ten-day trips for college students. “We realized that the Israeli Government and the Jewish Agency’s funding over the past few years has shifted towards the MASA and Birthright programs, which has left the high school age programs reliant almost exclusively on the diminishing and critical support of the Jewish Federations,” remarks Shavit.

While MASA participants receive some sort of scholarship and Birthright trips are fully subsidized, the high school-age programs receive no funding. High school age programs have, in one word, simply been neglected. “Investing in these Israel programs has the potential of having a ripple effect on the whole family – more so than college-age programs,” asserts Dr. Joe Freedman, Director of Ramah Programs in Israel, another one of Lapid’s founding member organizations. “Moreover, spending several weeks to several months in Israel in high school is an important step towards more extensive Israel involvement through MASA. One feeds into the other.”

The recent global financial crisis has also taken its toll on high school-age participant numbers, with many families finding they cannot afford to send their kids on a trip to Israel and many Jewish Federations cutting back on funding. “We feel that it is essential that the Jewish community, and the Israeli government in particular, recognize the need to offer scholarships to high school-age program participants to make it easier for the families during these difficult economic times, and also to help raise the profile and reeducate the community about the importance of high school-age programs,” asserts Dan Krakow, Director of Young Judaea in Israel and former Co-Chairman of Lapid. “Our goals and responsibility is to help communities develop and nurture the next generation of Jewish leaders, and to assure the continuity of strong Zionist Jewish communities that are obligated to their connection with Israel.”

The good news

The good news is that Lapid has been successfully making giant leaps in a relatively short amount of time by garnering strong support and recognition for its mission from the big players. “The State of Israel and the Jewish Agency will be part of this extremely important and exciting program,” affirms Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who features confidently in Lapid’s promotional videos.

Standing by this affirmation is Alan Hoffmann, Director General of the Jewish Agency, who notes: “It is clear to me that we have to be doing everything in our power to make sure that the number of young people who come to Israel increases, and that this happens during the adolescent years, particularly during the high school years.”

In the same vain, Yuli Edelstein, Minister of Public Affairs and the Diaspora, who also features in Lapid’s promotional videos and who, together with Sharansky, made a special address at the Lapid Youth Festival in July of this year, has shown his strong support by announcing, “I think it’s very important to make sure that young Jews visit our country – they will always remember how central Israel is to their Jewish identity. We want to see more and more people coming here on Israel experiences, on Lapid, on all our other youth programs. We don’t want one single young Jew not to have an Israel experience.”

And if we needed further convincing, we have it in the President of Israel’s written address to Lapid, wherein Shimon Peres himself praises and affirms the coalition’s goals: “When they return to their countries,” he writes, “these youths will now be the best ambassadors of the State of Israel, and will proudly carry with them every- where the beauty and moral spirit of our country.”

A common cause

These words are inspiring, but what does all this support and goodwill really mean if we talk “tachlas”? Where’s the money going to come from? And more importantly, how is it going to be divided? Well, that’s what’s being discussed right now in meetings of Lapid members which span across Israel and the US.

For starters, Lapid believes that each of the three segments of Diaspora-Israel experiences – Masa, Birthright and Lapid – uniquely contributes to the strengthening of the bond between Israel and the Jewish communities abroad and the identity of the next generation of Diaspora Jews. “We’re not interested in sharing Birthright or Masa funds, God forbid,” Yehezkel is careful to point out. “The government must not cut budgets for these excellent pro- grams. We are asking for the government to simply add to what it spends on bringing Diaspora youth to Israel.”

Along the same line of argument, Scott Shay, Chairman of the Board of Signature Bank and author of “Getting our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry,” is an avid supporter of the Lapid case. He argues: “I think the next big task for Israel-Diaspora relations is to rejuvenate the notion of teen trips to Israel. We know that this is a critical time for Jewish identity formation. We cannot continue to make Birthright Israel and teen trips competitive with each other. We need more of both!”

This indeed is the bottom line and what the common cause is really all about. “The need for a coalition such as Lapid has been a long time in coming,” says Miami Beach entrepreneur Stephen Muss, Honorary Chairman of Lapid. With his added help and support, Lapid plans to continue to expand both in numbers and scope. “I am proud to be Honorary Chairman of Lapid,” says Muss. “I have met personally with Natan Sharansky and Alan Hoffmann. It is wonderful that they welcome and are supportive of Lapid and recognize how important it is that the earlier young Jews are exposed to Israel, the more impact it will have on perpetuating Jewish continuity. I am amazed that this recognition has taken so long in the coming. My thanks and respect go to Natan who has spearheaded this effort.”

Lapid has set a goal of doubling the current number of annual high school-age participants on Israel programs within seven years. The ramifications of such an achievement for Israel-Diaspora ties are immense, according to Yehezkel. Since participants on Lapid programs are usually “adopted” by host families during their stay in Israel, “try to imagine a quarter million [Israeli] households warmly connected to a quarter million Diaspora youth who have been to Israel. The potential is enormous.”