Before and after

Teen travel to Israel: A light at the end of the COVID tunnel

It is so much more than just about getting people to Israel

After more than 18 months of pandemic life, Jewish teens are being offered an “opportunity of a lifetime”—to travel to Israel with their friends in numbers that even weeks ago no one thought was possible for the 2021 summer. Early estimates of registration numbers show that more than 4,000 teens will embark on this journey through RootOne-affiliated trips.  

Transforming a generation of North American Jewish teens and helping prepare them for college through teen travel to Israel was the impetus for the RootOne initiative, launched in September 2020. By lowering barriers to participation and working to fuel innovation and meaningful learning and community experiences before, during, and after the trip, RootOne is re-imagining teen travel to Israel with more than 20 teen organizations and summer camps (the largest trip providers are NCSY, BBYO, URJ, Ramah, USY and Young Judaea and several JCC camps). The pandemic—and its impact on teen mental health and social isolation—amplified and accelerated the need to again make teen Israel travel and community building a rite of passage. 

Now, following the recent violence in Israel and Gaza, the upcoming RootOne trips to Israel this summer take on an even greater sense of importance and urgency. Teens—smart, savvy, critical thinkers, consumers of information and news—have questions and concerns about the news they watched and the social media posts they consumed just over a month ago. Our community has a responsibility and an opportunity to offer an experience and the space to get answers. At the same time, Jewish organizations and funders want to address the rapid rise in anti-Semitism. RootOne, designed to develop a generation of proud Jews connected to Israel and the Jewish people, is one way to tackle this challenge

Most of the headlines about RootOne have thus far focused on the unprecedented grant by The Marcus Foundation that provides significant subsidies that youth serving organizations (YSOs) and Jewish residential camps receive to make their multi-week Israel trips more affordable for more teens. No doubt this is a major development and we celebrate it. While the 20 RootOne affiliated organizations approved by The Jewish Agency for Israel to run educational trips this summer will bring the 4,000 fully vaccinated teens to Israel, 5,200 teens actually registered. But only vaccinated teens can go through RootOne at this point. Still, the 5,200 registered teens represent a 59 percent increase in the number of registered teens who traveled to Israel in 2019 with these same 20 organizations.

However, RootOne is more than just numbers and subsidies. Before, during, and after the trip, teens are now immersed in robust and varied educational experiences to tap into their interests and their thirst for knowledge. As teens excitedly register for trips, they are participating in “Early Experience Learning” opportunities over Zoom—soaking in an average of 8 hours of “pre-trip” education—one of the conditions for receiving a RootOne travel voucher. 

These Early Experience workshops reflect the many ways and topics through which teens can connect to and learn about Israel. The workshops have something for all learners—from deep dives into Israeli political history to binge watching and researching popular Israeli TV shows; from Hebrew language Ulpan to building meaningful (and cool) Israeli music playlists; from the current geopolitical realities in Israel to a course on how to take the best pictures of Israel with your phone, and much more. Offering meaningful, engaging, and important learning sessions over Zoom seems obvious today. Yet this is the first time on this large a scale that our community is offering this for teens, understanding that an impactful Israel experience is more than three or four weeks of travel. What occurs before and after lays the groundwork for more meaningful and ongoing Jewish learning and engagement. While some have suggested that teens are not interested or engaged in Jewish learning these days, RootOne has dramatically proven otherwise—in three months alone more than 3,000 Jewish teens will have participated in more than 24,000 hours of pre-trip Israel-based learning. This is about eight times as many pre-trip learning hours as occurred in 2019, as reported by current RootOne affiliated programs.

Creating deeper learning and engagement opportunities is exactly why the Marcus Foundation empowered The Jewish Education Project to launch RootOne. It is so much more than just about getting people to Israel. We will help change the ways in which Jewish youth learn about Israel before traveling there and will better prepare them for college life and a challenging campus climate after their trip. To this end, The Jewish Education Project immediately partnered with The iCenter to elevate Israel education that is part of the RootOne experience, and subsequently with Makom Israel Education, OpenDor Media, The Center for Israel Education at Emory University, Anu (formerly Bet Hatfutsot Museum), Vibe Israel, Hebrew at the Center, Ulpan Or, IMPACT Israel Education and The Jewish Agency for Israel. 

While it is far too early to determine the impact this approach will have on teens, anecdotally the response is very positive from both the teens and youth organization staff. Here’s just one example, indicative of both the eagerness of teens to learn and their desire to get as much out of these trips as we want them to:

“RootOne has provided a treasure trove of materials and practical resources… I am able to utilize videos, activities, stimulating questions and more, all of which enhance my curriculum and further enrich the teen’s early experience learning opportunities. This in turn further excites, motivates and encourages our teens to pack curiosity, knowledge, love of Israel and a sense of connection into the suitcase they will take with them on their Israel experience.” -Sarah, Youth Organization Professional 

Of course none of this engagement happens in a vacuum. There are pandemics. There are wars. There are individual trials and challenges that every teen goes through in their own lives, during these uniquely formative years. RootOne is our endeavor to be “in it” with teens in a thoughtful, supportive, and proactive way. A vibrant cross-section of organizations, representing different missions and levels of Jewish practice, are part of the RootOne network of trip providers. They are all planning and offering educational experiences that reflect teens’ curiosity and demand, rightfully so, for substantive, learning opportunities. 

As in all good education, Israel education is actually not about Israel; it is about the learner. Trips will be led by educators with the knowledge, skills, and range of educational approaches to help each participant find their singular connection to the land, people, and state. Teens will form their own thoughts about how they want to incorporate Israel into their lives. How will they connect most meaningfully to Israel? By providing teens with a growing list of compelling and relevant ways to engage,RootOne leaves it up to them to decide . 

Then, when teens return home, they will be met by RootOne and the same cross-section of community organizations, creating a pipeline of engagement in Israel and in Jewish opportunities that are most meaningful—and most relevant—to them as they age into young adulthood.  RootOne trip alumni will be connected to organizations like Hillel, MASA, Moishe House, and others to continue Jewish engagement on campus and beyond.RootOne has a clear and unabashed goal. We want to build a generation of proud Jews who have a deep, personal connection to Israel before they go to college. Coming out of a pandemic and now the violence in Israel and Gaza, teens are yearning for community and are filled with questions. Their Jewish identity and relationship with Israel is forming right before our eyes. RootOne is our endeavor to be there for them and with them through this process. Israel travel is a unique opportunity that is about much more than Israel. We are excited and ready for this summer, eager for teens to have an experience of a lifetime that can impact them for a lifetime.

Simon Amiel is Executive Director of RootOne.