Marcus Foundation grants $60 million to teen Israel travel program RootOne

RootOne aims to almost double participation by next summer

The Marcus Foundation will announce a $60 million grant today to RootOne, the Israel teen travel program it created in 2020 with a $20 million seed gift, Simon Amiel, RootOne’s executive director, told eJewishPhilanthropy. The funding will support a plan to grow participation in the program, which subsidizes the cost of a trip to Israel for teenagers.

By the end of this summer, about 4,500 students will have traveled to Israel with financial help from RootOne, barring any significant disruptions to Israel travel caused by the COVID-19 pandemic or an outbreak of violence. RootOne plans to help bring 7,000 teens to Israel in the summer of 2022 and 9,000 by the summer of 2024, Amiel said.

The program aims to deepen teens’ Jewish identity by exposing them to Israel as a source of spirituality, culture and innovation, and to prepare them to weather or counter anti-Israel sentiment they might encounter on their college campuses.

“This grant is our direct response to the studies saying teens’ connection to Israel is waning, or that Jewish identity among youth has declined,” said Bernie Marcus, a Home Depot co-founder, in a statement. “Especially as antisemitism on campuses and across the globe increases, we must develop a generation of proud Jews connected to Israel and the Jewish people.”

The program doesn’t offer its own Israel trips, instead working through established trip providers. Many are national youth groups, such as the non-denominational BBYO; the Orthodox NCSY and Reconstructing Judaism’s Havaya Israel. Some are local programs, like Kehillah High in Houston, and a B’nai B’rith camp on the coast of Oregon. The providers in turn convert the funds into vouchers for teens entering 10, 11 or 12 grade that can lower the price of an Israel trip — which can cost $5,000 or more — by $3,000.

“Teen travel is an incredibly competitive marketplace,” said BBYO CEO Matt Grossman. “RootOne has made the economic decision a lot easier.”

However, Amiel said, the $60 million will not be spent only on vouchers.

Most of the current trip participants are already involved in Jewish life through synagogue attendance or JCC membership. To meet its goals, RootOne must reach beyond those existing connections to students on the periphery of Jewish life.

“This funding is about having the right level of resources for marketing this experience to a population of Jewish teens who have little to no connection to Israel,” Amiel said.

The ability to attract participants who would not have traveled to Israel on their own initiative has been key to the success of Birthright Israel, said Len Saxe, a professor and researcher at Brandeis University who directs a long-running study of Birthright.

More than 750,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 32 have been to Israel on Birthright trips since its inception in 1999.

Birthright is helped in this effort by the fact that it operates on college campuses, where young people who might not encounter it either before or after college stand a good chance of learning about it through word of mouth, Saxe said.

As a non-denominational youth group whose population is almost completely comprised of teens who attend public schools, BBYO will help RootOne extend its reach, Grossman said.

Amiel said RootOne will also explore the idea of creating additional channels, such as new programs, to reach teens who don’t or won’t affiliate with a Jewish youth group.

“Being Jewish might be fifth or sixth on these kids’ list of identities,” he said, adding that such new programs might emphasize social justice or the arts.

Saxe said he didn’t think RootOne would cut into demand for Birthright by offering an earlier trip.

“My sense is that sending kids to Israel during high school is a good thing,” he said. “The more the merrier.”

Birthright’s own eligibility requirements would not be an obstacle, as the program allows participation by those who have gone to Israel on youth trips at age 18 or younger.

RootOne has also designated a significant percentage of the $60 million to its educational arm, which involves trip participants in learning about Israel both before and after the trip. Amiel said RootOne will be tripling the size of its educational staff, in addition to hiring in the areas of grants management, marketing and communications and administration.

RootOne has already created 80 hours of Israel education content this year and will continue to build curriculum that it will offer to the trip providers. It does not, however, dictate what the providers should teach. Many of them, such as BBYO and Young Judaea, have their own curricula and education departments developed over decades.

“What RootOne has done in a very smart way is emphasize the importance that educational programming, both before and after the trip, can play in the overall experience, and provided a network” of trip providers, Grossman said.