Needed: a Three-Legged Stool of Israel Experiences

by Stephen Muss

I am responding to the article that appeared June 3, 2011, in eJewish Philanthropy entitled “The Importance of Teen Years.” The study was released by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Lynn Schusterman is one of the mega-philanthropists in the United States of America and her support for Birthright/Taglit and BBYO and many other Jewish institutions is historic and deserving of praise.

Every educator in the world knows that the earlier in a child’s education, the more the child will learn and absorb. According to countless studies that have been carried out, we know that the most important stage for influencing Jewish identity and Israel engagement is the high school age. Therefore, bringing teens to Israel en masse on educational high school age programs will create a stronger bond with Israel and therefore Jewish continuity is perpetuated.

Strange, before the second Intifada, groups of independent high school age trip providers throughout the United States and around the world brought 500,000 teens to Israel from anywhere from two weeks to a full semester, many of them with a focus on education. Teenage programming in Israel has been around for 40 years. So why now is the importance of the teen years being brought to light?

After the second Intifada, recognizing that unaffiliated Jewish parents were not sending their children to Israel, of necessity, Birthright was established by a group of mega-philanthropists in the United States including Schusterman, Steinhart and Bronfman, and in partnership with the Israeli Government, which jointly funded hundreds of millions of dollars to bring over 350,000 college age students from ages 18-26 – provided that they had never been to Israel before on organized high school age programs. These lucky young adults have been afforded the opportunity to travel to Israel for ten days totally free – room, board and travel. Wow. How could a Jewish parent turn that down?

Birthright has done a remarkable job, particularly with bringing those young Jewish adults who might have never had an opportunity to travel to Israel. Unfortunately there were negative side-effects. For example, the growing number of participants on Birthright who delayed their first trip to Israel and would have gone on high school age programs, had the terms of Birthright not excluded these graduates from participation, effectively, discriminating against them. The question became for Jewish parents everywhere: Do I send my kids to Israel for an extensive educational program for thousands of dollars or do I send them to Birthright for free eighteen months later? Well, the results became obvious.

As a result, there is now a built-in incentive for delaying the first trip to Israel from the high school years to Birthright. We are connecting with our youth later in their lives and we are losing them along the way. Furthermore, we are shifting the norm from longer programs during high school to shorter trips in early adulthood, as the message of exclusion to participants and parents of high school programs puts high school programs in an undesirable light. I’ve said it before and I still maintain, with the current set up, the Jewish community is losing masses of teens who can engage with Israel earlier while still with family and community; fewer Jewish teens are entering college with readiness and motivation to be engaged with Israel, and not enough is being done about it.

Because of our economic times, high school program recruitment slipped precipitously. I want to remind you that the 500,000 teenage students from all around the world (mainly North America) who traveled to Israel prior to the Intifada did so without any government assistance; just parents’ full commitment to investing in their children’s education and Jewish identity.

We are living in a different age now, where Birthright and Masa (college age programs) were formed, in my humble opinion, as a two-legged stool receiving millions of dollars of aid from the government. With an enormous amount of backing behind them, these programs have unsurprisingly grown and prospered. Of necessity, an organization called Lapid (meaning Torch) – the coalition for high school age programs in Israel, and the only umbrella organization focusing on preparing Jewish youth before college, was formed in 2008 and today represents 30 international member organizations, including Lynn Schusterman’s BBYO. Lapid’s mission was and is to be a force to convince the Israeli government to create a three-legged stool and support Lapid as they support Birthright and Masa. The aim is to not neglect the high school age teens.

Obviously the Schusterman Foundation has brought teens to Israel through BBYO and other wonderful initiatives and is now publically focusing on teenagers, which I wholeheartedly support. Prime Minister Netanyahu, Jewish Agency Executive Chairman Natan Sharansky and other leaders of Israel have also started talking publicly about teenagers too.

Amazing, now after all these years the importance of teenagers has been brought to the surface. So what has the government done to support this realization? Three years ago the Jewish Agency retained JPPPI (now JPPI), a think tank, which writes reports on all Israeli issues. A 186-page report was published with pages 39 thru 46 focusing on the high school age sector, which was apparently shelved. Now under the auspices of the same Jewish Agency another report has been initiated. When I was in Israel in February I had the opportunity to meet with Micha Fraind of Strategic Planning who is doing yet another report. I imagine that this report will focus on Birthright and Masa and will emphasize teenagers coming to Israel. The government then in recognition to Lapid committed 1 million dollars in 2010 to do a “pilot” program to see if the number of teenage students coming to Israel could be increased through scholarships. The million dollars never came; it was pushed to 2011 and unceremoniously cancelled.

As I traveled through Israel in February of 2011 the mantra of several of the ministries’ staff was generally – ‘if it’s not broken don’t fix it’. Although it has been acknowledged that due to the aforementioned conditions, high school age program enrollment has been reduced from north of 20,000 teenagers per year to approximately 12,000 teenagers per year, the problem is that they felt that 12,000 teenagers is impressive, so therefore, what’s to fix? It is taken for granted that these 12,000 teenagers are a given every year, but this could not be further from the truth. Every year, recruitment starts from scratch and with every year it is becoming increasingly more challenging to recruit high school age teens. I say the high school age programs are meeting only half their potential. There is every reason to believe that with help from the government, Lapid can enroll more teenagers in its high school age programs than ever before. This way, the spiral effect of a teen’s connection to and engagement with Israel begins earlier and leaves a stronger, more lasting impression.

It is clear we have proven through the years that Lapid organizations have brought hundreds of thousands of teenagers to Israel and the impact this experience has is life-long. The second generation of teens is now arriving to Israel through programs on which their parents participated in as high schoolers themselves. It seems obvious that the government should treat teenage recruitment in the Diaspora the same way as Birthright and Masa have been treated, therefore creating a three-legged stool that is sturdy, balanced and dedicated to Jewish education and continuity.

There is a distinction however that perhaps is not recognized by the government that I think is important to highlight: there are no mega-philanthropists to my knowledge, other than the Schusterman Foundation, who have recognized the need to bring teenagers to Israel.

I would like to thank the Schusterman Foundation for this initiative and I extend an open invitation for more such philanthropists to jump on board this important endeavor. Let’s save our youth.

Stephen Muss is Honorary Chairman of Lapid and Chairman, Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI).