by Aubrey Isaacs
The news of the closing of WUJS Arad has caused sorrow to all who have heard of it and maybe to no one more than myself. I served in WUJS for 11 years (1993-2004) as Director of Education, Rabbi, Deputy Director and Director. I guided WUJS through the incredibly difficult years of the second Intifada when buses were blowing up weekly or even daily and spending time in Israel was a hard concept to sell. In those days the going was tough but we struggled on, brought around 65-80 students each year and delivered the best program there was.
Recently I have heard many explanations as to why WUJS is closing, ranging from the influence of MASA, to the financial crisis in the Sochnut, to the devaluation of the dollar and to a claim that Arad is no longer attractive and that the Arad municipality is not supportive. I am sure there is truth in these claims.
Yet the true reason lies in the failure of Young Judaea to recruit students and that failure stems from the fundamental educational mistakes that were made from the day that Young Judea took over in 2004.
In my understanding there are a few factors that led the Young Judaea management to commit educational errors.
- They envisioned WUJS in terms of constituting a follow up program to their impressive youth movement and their highly successful one year gap program. That created in their minds a potential market of relatively committed young graduates for whom WUJS would be another step in a long process of informal Jewish education.
- When analyzing WUJS and taking the decision to take it over, Young Judaea saw a program that worked very hard, with a strong family atmosphere. The program was long – 7 months and demanding, functioning usually 7 days a week. Young Judaea read all this as inefficiency and came in determined to cut costs and streamline.
- Young Judaea saw the significant Jewish religious aspect of programming. This did not fit well with their concept of pluralism against a largely non Orthodox ethos and so they determined that the religious elements of WUJS must be severely cut back.
But in my opinion they mis-read the target audience and the reality. In my time although the entrance age was 21, the average age was mid to late twenties. The WUJS students were not youth movement people fresh out of college, but young Jewish adults at a crossroads in their lives. The WUJS students were graduates with a few years of work experience looking for something, looking to fill their lives with new meaning by connecting to Israel and to their own Jewishness. They usually came alone, looking to find support, understanding and spirituality. So they were looking for Judaism and had come to Israel in search of it.
WUJS used to meet these needs. WUJS guided students on their journey with a strong emphasis on meeting and understanding the individual. WUJS provided an intensive community that studied 6 days a week, and celebrated Shabbatot and chagim together. WUJS provided close guidance to every student as he or she tried to find work or study elsewhere in Israel.
WUJS was a home, a place where love blossomed and a place to where there were always some alumni coming to visit every single week.
Young Judaea arrived, eliminated the position of Rabbi, greatly reduced the functioning of the Beit Knesset, cancelled the weekly parshat Hashavua chug and largely eliminated Shabbatot and chagim from the WUJS program. Friday Ulpan classes were canceled thereby allowing and encouraging students to go away each weekend. This weakened the community cohesion, reduced the amount of non classroom time that staff spent with students and weakened the incredible staff – student relationships that had previously existed.
The virtual removal of students from Arad each weekend contributed to a looser connection between students and the Arad community than had previously existed and indirectly weakened the all important adopting families program – since the students had less reason to inviting themselves to spend a Shabbat meal with the participating families.
The elimination of the role of Rabbi also related to a misunderstanding of the crucial importance of the counseling role of the Rabbi. Students who are on a spiritual quest, in need and distress had no personality on the staff in the role of community leader, equipped with the counseling skills that the students so badly needed.
In the interests of cost saving the program was then cut back from every angle.
- The seven month program was reduced to 5 months.
- The proven system of overlapping machzorim in which one machzor welcomed the next was disbanded .
- The amount of Ulpan and Jewish Studies hours were reduced.
- The volunteer period was made optional, chugim and student committees such as the long lasting “Jewish Life Committee” and “Moadon Committee” in which students played an active role in designing and implementing programming were discontinued.
- The total number of days of tiyul were reduced and the management of the tiyulim were subcontracted out. This replaced the old system in which the tiyulim were run by WUJS staff and the students cooked their own meals creating intimate and memorable bonding experiences.
- The employment coordinator position was eliminated in Arad and those students seeking post WUJS employment in Israel could either function through Young Judaea in Jerusalem, or more often, needed to fend for themselves.
Meantime the new administration seemed to deliberately take apart some of the infrastructure that had kept WUJS going. The first class North American Director position disappeared and the American Friends of WUJS Institute (the alumni organization) was closed, rendering its enthusiastic and committed chairman / director redundant. Contact was not maintained in any meaningful way with alumni. The monthly alumni e-newsletter was discontinued. No significant alumni activities were held and recent alumni living in Israel had no address to return to. The crucial potential of alumni in promoting the program was lost and the alumni were no longer cultivated in any meaningful way.
And in the end it all falls on marketing and leadership. In my opinion, Young Judaea had not appointed inspiring leaders who could attract potential participants to sign up in adequate numbers. Instead they went for efficient administrators who were so efficient they efficiently led WUJS Arad to its sad demise.
eJP note: since our original post, WUJS Arad Bites The Dust, a significant number of program alumni have chimed in (both online and off) with their memories, thoughts and comments. Scroll down to the end of that post to read what they had to say.
Meanwhile, Hadassah-Israel insists that the approximately 50 students enrolled for the September machzor have all agreed to the program’s relocation to Jerusalem. I hear it is more like 18 participants; a significant difference. Whatever the actual number turns out to be, we will know in a few short weeks as the new machzor begins; and we plan to be on top of the WUJS rebirth in Jerusalem as 5769 enfolds.
You can find all our posts on WUJS Arad here.
image source: Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life