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?