Teen Travel to Israel –
We Need New Directions in a post-Covid World

Photo courtesy BBYO

By Michael Weil

This article is dedicated to the memory of Robert Lappin z”l who devoted his life to promoting teen travel to Israel

For the first time in decades, no organized teen groups visited Israel this year. The absence of approximately 10,000 teens that annually arrive has been sorely felt1. Yet, the need to think ahead and plan anew now is all the more pressing during this pandemic lacuna of curtailed travel to Israel.

The question is how can existing programs be revamped to make them attractive to teens (and amenable to their parents), when the fear of travel will likely linger and further potential outbreaks may lead to another year or without travel?

To meet both existing challenges and to address the new issues that this pandemic has brought, program planners will have to be much smarter and design boutique affinity trips that are shorter, less expensive yet much more attractive, with unique content that will address the needs and interests of today’s youth, as concluded in earlier studies.

Teen travel to Israel (or what was designated the Israel Experience) stemmed out of much research into Jewish identity that indicated that a visit to Israel is one of the main drivers towards Jewish continuity2. Furthermore, the need for strengthening the connection between Diaspora teens and Israel has increased as many young people overseas are distancing themselves from Israel. Behind this stands the enormous potential reflected by the low penetration rate of only 5% of US teens in grades 10-11 visiting Israel (or 2 ½% for all high school). This compares to a penetration rate of around 60% for teens from the UK who visit Israel and similar for the rest of Europe and Australasia.

Last year I conducted a study commissioned by the Jewish Agency for Israel to map existing teen travel programs, examine multiyear trends, and suggested ways to significantly increase participation. Today post Covid, the findings and recommendations of that study are even more poignant and the need for change and innovation even more urgent.

The Study

The study encompassed most of the programs offered to North American teens and covered some 50 programs offered by 23 organizations. Of those, eight were sponsored by new organizations that had joined the field in the last decade. The majority of programs served teens in grades 10 and 11.

The numbers of teen participants in organized visits to Israel rose over the period 1985-2000 and reached around 10,000 by the end of the decade. But since then the numbers have not only failed to grow, but they mostly remained stagnant; and actually fell during the first years of this millennium. In 2007 there were only 4900 participants and the numbers rose again to reach 8900 in 2018 and were expected to continue a gradual increase.

There were two main reasons for the decline and subsequent stagnation, the advent of Birthright and the Second Intifada. Birthright, itself an off shoot of the trend to encourage travel to Israel, made available an almost free trip to Israel; at a time when the Israel teen programs offered were still costing many thousands of dollars each. Thus, many teens and their parents still preferred to wait a few years for the free Birthright trip rather than spend significant outlays; despite the fact that the teen programs were of much longer duration and had greater educational content.

The Second Intifada in the early 2000s almost brought the program to a halt as parents were very concerned about security and safety. Eventually, with precautions introduced, numbers began to slowly build up again, but even now almost 20 years on; there has not been significant growth.

Three main factors emerged from the research as mitigating growth.

The first and critical factor was cost. Whereas 20 years ago, 4-6 week programs at $4-6,000 including flights, and with local subsidies from synagogues, federations and foundations, were seen to be reasonable. But since then, prices have risen to over $10,0003 with no proportional increase in subsidies and grants. To many, these teen travel programs had become almost unaffordable4. Additionally, the gap between the costly and lengthy teen immersive programs and the free short Birthright trips was stark.

The second critical factor was content. Program organizers were continuing to provide programs similar to those in effect twenty years earlier and failed to match the evolving interests, needs and constraints of North American present day teens. Indeed, it seemed to be a case of “…educators providing what they thought was good for the youth while ignoring the actual realities of the customers and the market”, one expert commented.

Looking at American teenagers today and as described by experts interviewed, we see youth as more competitive, more driven, more demanding and are making more of their own decisions as to how to spend their time. The agendas of teens have changed too and Israel is less of an attraction or a priority than what it was. They are more concerned about their future careers and especially their college application. They have competing interests for their vacation time, have a greater need to earn income during the summer and they demand greater excitement, innovation and impact from all their activities.

As a result we have seen teens expand their travel horizons to more exotic destinations, go on shorter trips (whether to local camp or travel overseas), invest heavily in their college applications, and demand more unique experiences. The summer vacation market has as a result expanded widely and become highly competitive. For example, the top universities in North America like MIT, Caltech and Princeton are providing unique campus based programs as is the United Nations program, as well as overseas volunteer programs.

The third factor was duration. The lengthy 4-6 week programs are still the most prevalent and ignore the competition for teen’s summer time that has become more intense.

Interestingly enough, recently, shorter programs of 10-21 days have been offered to teens. But they are not yet the norm.

Putting all these factors together, a clearer picture of a new approach needed for teen travel to Israel emerged, based on the following parameters:

• Programs should be more immersive, experiential and life-changing; while reflecting teen’s interests and concerns.

• Programs need to be shorter and more focused, with modular add-on options.

• Programs should respond to market needs and constraints.

  • There should be multiple touch points with Israel and a continuum of trips to Israel.

Regarding the content, a number of possibilities and directions can be considered:

A. Recommended specialty themes.

Rather than general all encompassing “one size fits all” itineraries which are mostly aimed at first-timers, programs should be boutique in nature with specialty themes such as sports, hi-tech, medicine, environment, social justice, LGBTQ, archeology, food and wine, or Middle East politics (like Model UN).

B. Experiential components

Teens are interested in new experiences and especially ones that can be added to their resumes. Examples of possible experiences are: volunteering (in social justice, care for the elderly, disadvantaged, peripheral areas), internships (especially in hi-tech companies), and training (in leadership skills, Israel advocacy, etc.).

C. Extended and expanded Mifgash5 with Israeli teens

It is suggested that the relationships with Israeli teens commence many months before and continue way after the program ends.

D. Adding a neutral Israel Palestinian component

American Jewish teens visiting Israel want to understand and hear about the story of the Middle East conflict from all perspectives. While mostly supporting and sympathetic to the Israeli side, it’s important that they should hear other sides directly, especially from Palestinians.

E. Adding Israel advocacy preparation

As soon as a teen enters college, he or she is likely to encounter strong criticism of Israel and the IDF. Yet most teens come unprepared for such confrontations. The Israel trip is an ideal opportunity for providing preparation and training for Israel advocacy.

F. Adopt the Continuum Approach to Israel Experiences

While most teen program organizers view the Birthright trips as competition and are devising strategies to encourage youth to visit Israel before college rather than wait for the free trip available a few years letter, I would suggest an alternative approach. Namely, that teen travel trips should simultaneously differentiate and also feed into the later Birthright option. Similarly, the Birthright planners should organize the later trip as an addition to and complimentary to the teen trip taken a couple of years earlier. Indeed, this is the continuum approach adopted by many European and Australian Jewish communal leaders who encourage their young to visit Israel many times in their lifetime, each time adding a new and deeper experience; starting with Bat/Barmitzva trips, then high school, then Birthright and later Masa or Onward.

Cost and Funding

There is much work to be done on the financial side. According to one of the largest Israel tour operators, the cost per day should average $150 or $1050 a week as compared to close to $2000 a week currently. Total program costs can be considerably reduced to around $4500 through shorter programs of not more than two or three weeks, by sharing resources with other providers and by partnering with unique organizations in Israel such as the universities, IDF, hi-tech companies, the Wingate Sport Institute, environmental NGOs and others, and by excluding indirect costs.

Regarding the funding side, in most communities in North America the research found that funding in the form of subsidies and grants for teen travel to Israel is more readily available than has been apparent6 and, with the appropriate incentives and efforts can also be increased significantly.

Using a feasible funding model, the research concluded that the participation cost for the family for a 2-3 week trip could be reduced to only $500 with adequate local subsidies and grants.

* * *

This new approach for teen travel with shorter, affordable and specially designed boutique affinity programs will hopefully be received better by the market and by the teens themselves.

The recommendations made in the research a year ago are even more pertinent today as we prepare for a post Corona era of travel to Israel and it would be disastrous if the negative experience of the effects of the Second Intifada were repeated. While we can expect significantly reduced travel to Israel next year 2021, the real battle is for 2022 and thereafter. Competition will become even stiffer as many parents and their teens will consider playing safe and prefer domestic offerings for the summer rather than taking the risks of overseas travel. We need therefore to be smarter, cheaper, more creative and better prepared.

Recent Developments

There is already some good news. In this vein, we welcome the recent announcement of a new venture generously funded by the Marcus Foundation and to be managed by the Jewish Education Project. The RootOne venture promises to provide $3000 vouchers which will improve affordability. To my mind, the out of pocket cost could be reduced even further to almost zero by smart budgeting, shorter program durations and matching funds.

Corona has brought to us some positives as well. The productive experience of Zoom interactions at this time means that there will be a greater propensity for the all-important pre and post trip activities. Indeed an Israel trip can start a month earlier when teen participants, counselors, educators and organizers can meet to plan the trip, get to know each other and experience educational orientation. Likewise post trip follow-up activities can continue through Zoom and other platforms.

The plethora of some 30 organizations and close to 100 programs available to teens in the past has been dizzy making. In many cases, the diversity of the market was counter productive with organizations competing more with each other. It is anticipated and hoped that as a result of the pandemic some significant rationalization with some mergers and greater collaborations is in the offing.

The not so glorious history of teen travel to Israel since the turn of the millennium coupled with the ravaging rendered by the Corona pandemic present enormous challenges. Recent research has highlighted the need for shorter and less expensive programs that meet the real current needs and interests of needs while using the most innovative educational and experiential programming. Such a new approach coupled with additional security and safety measures will hopefully bring about the badly needed transformation in this space. When the market opens up again, those organizations and providers that are smarter, more creative, cost effective and market savvy are those that will succeed.

The writer is an economist and strategic planning consultant based in Jerusalem and Arizona. Until recently he was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans since just after Katrina. Previously, he was a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, held senior positions at World ORT in London and the Israel Prime Minister’s Office as well as heading an international consulting practice for two decades.

1 As well as the estimated loss of $300 million to the Israel economy through the cancelling of teen travel groups, Birthright and other organized travel to Israel

2 The others are Jewish day school, Jewish camp and synagogue school

3 Specifically, the prices ranged from $2995 for an eight day program to $11,250 for a five week program/

4 The research showed that program cost per week ranged considerably from $840 to $2498, while the average unweighted cost per week was $1440. Most programs lay in the range between $1200 – $2000 a week; a sum unnecessarily expensive and not necessarily reflective of the true costs.

5 Interaction between Diaspora and Israeli tees

6 The research identified some 15 communities across North America that contributed funding for teen travel ranging from $500 to $6500 per teen with the majority being in the $1000-2000 range. The main funders in those communities were the Jewish Federation and local foundations.