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.