By Simon Klarfeld
Rabbi Aaron’s “Finding Their Way Home: Rethinking Teen Travel to Israel” is an important article in today’s Jewish educational environment. Rabbi Aaron is absolutely correct in stating that the teen Israel experience provides enormous opportunity for growth for participating high school students at a time in their lives where independence, critical thinking, grappling with identity and their place within community are key issues. Research and evaluation over many years underscores this point – the Israel experience is one of the trifecta of Jewish educational experiences (together with day school and summer camp) that provides the best opportunity to develop informed, passionate and engaged Jews.
Now, more than ever, it is important to reach young Jews in their formative teen years with a story of Israel reflecting a pluralism of voices and values that they can take with them to college and into adult life. Without that, they will tend to either have heard only monolithic views that become easy to dismiss or counter, or they may not even engage with Israel at all.
As with any major Jewish educational experience we can, and should, expect that an effective Israel encounter will impact the (trajectory of) the lives of its participants in significant ways: It would be naïve to think that communal investment would be outcome-neutral or -free when it comes to the Israel experience. Rabbi Aaron is correct in arguing, however, that too narrow a definition of those outcomes – especially in exactly how a high school student should think and relate to Israel and the Jewish people – is potentially self-defeating. Whether that be because (potential) participants will feel that their voice is not heard or reflected in the program, or because pedagogically a narrow partisan approach shuts down the opportunity for learning and self-discovery…
Many of us in the Israel education world echo the article’s advocacy for “democratizing” or “personalizing” the Israel experience – allowing many voices into the conversation, and exposure to a real day-to-day Israel (with warts and all) as well as offering options or tracks within the program itself to allow participants the ability to forge their own path of encounter and therefore meaning.
Young Judaea has been taking this approach since our first teen Israel experience in 1951, continually reinventing both in terms of providing significant empowerment of our teens in crafting and co-designing the Israel experience itself, or in offering specific niche lenses through which to experience Israel – with great success. As a pluralistic, non-partisan Zionist youth movement, Young Judaea’s approach – at its core – requires exposure to “the many faces of Torah” in a safe, structured and age-appropriated way.
Rabbi Aaron is absolutely right in stating that “shekel for shekel [the teen Israel experience] is one of the most cost-effective educational investments for North American Jewish life.” However, by and large, the American Jewish philanthropic community has not made this a priority in recent years.
So, a fundamental obstacle to our achieving greater success with the Teen Israel Experience is that we don’t go far enough with the idea of “going Dutch.” By definition, the approach requires that each partner contributes to paying the bill. As of now, with few notable exceptions, the cost of the trip lies squarely with the family.
Were the Jewish community to underwrite the cost of a high school student going on an educational Israel experience the same way it does for a young adult ($2500-3000), I believe we would see a dramatic increase in the number of applicants for the teen Israel experience. Whether it is because of the Birthright Israel gift (note that most do not take advantage of this gift until well into their college years or later) – or the lack of perceived value that the Israel experience offers a high school student (both to teens and their parents), the fact is that many families turn down the opportunity of a teen Israel experience because of the price tag.
Approaches by several youth movements and community teen programs in which subsidization and/or significant merit-based scholarships are built into the marketing and implementation of the program have shown that there is an appetite for the programs offered were money not to be the primary consideration or obstacle.
“Shekel for shekel” (or “guilder for guilder”) … isn’t it worth the investment?
Simon Klarfeld is Executive Director of Young Judaea.