Herzliya Conference Looks at Israel Experience Programs

At the recent Herzliya Conference, one of the very few panels that digressed from discussing Israel’s security needs, turned to another area of concern, engaging the next generation as it relates to Israel.

The panel, entitled, Binding the Ties: Leveraging the Israel Experience Programs among the World Jewish Young Generations, examined the distancing among Jewish youth in the Diaspora from Israel. While some panelists relied to heavily on outdated studies, the general consensus was that hands-on experiences develop strong bonds that can be leveraged for the benefit of both Israel and Diaspora communities.

Some key points from the panel:

  1. The Jewish world lacks a master plan for the critical field of teenage/young adult Israel travel.
  2. While there was general agreement on the need to bring more people, for more and longer visits, it was apparent that [like so much else] the individual programs, and Government offices, had a mostly uncoordinated approach to their efforts.
  3. Reaching the unaffiliated is critical for long-term success.
    While most programs have figured out how to reach those in their own orbit, no-one is really successful in reaching those who have minimal contact with the Jewish world.
  4. The growth of Taglit Birthright-Israel over the past decade has had a measurable, and negative, effect on high school short and longer term programs.
  5. The Diaspora is a topic most politicians are uninterested in for the simple reason the Israeli public is not particularly interested.

A fair amount of discussion centered around the subject of high school programs – a topic generally absent from the agenda of decision makers.

As background, prior to Birthright Israel coming on the scene, some 20,000 high school students traveled to Israel each year for a host of programs – over 500,000 during the past 4 decades!

Today, the number seems to be holding steady at around 12,000 per year.

There are several reasons for this including that each individual program is fairly small, with the Reform movement’s NFTY and Young Judaea historically being two of the larger providers. No umbrella organization, similar to the MASA or Taglit structure existed until recently.

The Israeli Government has not really contributed to high school programs and only minor funding has come from the participants home communities. The financial burden lies squarely on the families. With the “free” Birthright option in college, along with not allowing those who have participated in high school programs to return through Birthright, is it any surprise high school participation has lagged over the past decade?

Today, there is at least the beginning of a dialogue. In 2008, Lapid (Hebrew for “torch”), was founded as a cooperative initiative to strengthen the community of high school age study and travel programs in Israel. The organization aims to raise awareness of and to significantly increase participation in quality high school age programs in Israel by lobbying for equal recognition and financial and institutional support on par with comparable programs for university age, and beyond, participants. Lapid’s 29 member manage various programs ranging from 2 weeks to 5 months.

Many Jewish educators, community leaders and experts in the field of teen development, share the belief that there is an advantage in coming to Israel at an earlier age as visits takes place in a critical phase of Jewish identity development. And the ‘spiral’ that we all speak of needs to fully take into account that the earlier we engage Diaspora youth the more opportunities we will have over the long term.

With less teens traveling to Israel during the formative high school period, the Jewish community loses significant numbers of students who can engage with Israel earlier while still tightly connected to family and community. As a consequence, fewer Jewish teens are entering college with the ability and motivation to be engaged and are thus less equipped to fight the Delegitimization of Israel that is all to prevalent on campuses today.

The most positive aspect of the panel, and the ensuing q and a, is recognition that the Government is now sitting and discussing these issues with the various stakeholders. A healthy, though long overdue, approach.

Hopefully, this topic will remain not only on the communities’ and Government’s agenda, but also on that of the Herzliya Conference.

Here’s a brief excerpt of the panel program: