We Must Bring Our Teens to Israel

by Dan Deutsch

Just eighteen years ago I was one of them – a teenager from New Jersey who had the good luck to travel with my peers on Young Judaea’s Machon in Israel. I have fond memories of being 16, seeing firsthand the Israel that I had spent years learning about. It was a transformational trip on many levels, one that solidified my Jewish identity. I have strong memories of spending days in the north on an archaeological dig, rappelling down the Ramon crater, and staying up all night at Kibbutz Keturah, stargazing and talking about how we couldn’t wait to get back to Israel. When I think about what made me proud to be Jewish, this trip was at the core.

We have a lot of anecdotal evidence and survey data that substantiates the importance of teen travel to Israel, yet over the last two decades we have failed our Jewish teens, allowing that critical travel to plummet by 40 percent. A trip to Israel during the formative adolescent years is a chance to solidify Jewish identity before leaving home to go to college. We know that Jewish young adults face intellectual and political challenges on university campuses in regard to Israel, and many of them are unprepared to explain and defend Israeli policies or history. Indeed, the majority have little knowledge or understanding of the Zionist movement and what it has meant to the Jewish people. Travel to Israel for several weeks or a month can’t turn North American teens into Jewish historians, but it can and does give them a powerfully positive emotional experience, one that becomes a part of their identity as Jews.

I recently returned from the 2011 JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest in Israel. I had the privilege of bringing together over 1,000 Jewish teens from around the world to compete in sports and to participate in arts workshops. If industry estimates are correct, that as few as 6,500 Jewish teens from North America traveled to Israel on a peer trip during the summer of 2010, the JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest in Israel accounts for a 12 percent increase for the summer of 2011. We’re very proud of that accomplishment. But who will increase the numbers next year?

To make this program a reality, it took JCC Association and Maccabi World Union two years of planning and the generous support of many donors. Most importantly, it took the commitment of 50 different Jewish communities, which agreed to work tirelessly towards solidifying funding and recruiting participants. Our program builds tomorrow’s Jewish leaders and solidifies Jewish community through the arts and athletics. I don’t know a way to measure the return on investment (besides citing examples such as former JCC Maccabi Games athletes like Olympian Lenny Krayzelburg), but I do know that we can kvell over the pride that each delegation exhibited as they marched into Opening Ceremonies representing their own Jewish community in front of a crowd of several thousand people in Kiryat Shmona. We can brag about how we facilitated peer-to-peer interaction with Israelis for all of our participants and staff through our Partnership 2000 Shabbat. Our participants got the opportunity to experience Israel through the lens of sports and the arts, and felt the rhythm and beat of the unique Israeli culture and society.

While the JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest will continue to serve several thousand Jewish teens each summer in North America, we are still solidifying plans to bring the program back to Israel. I urge the leaders of the Jewish community at large to adjust priorities and to reallocate funds towards sending Jewish teens to the Jewish state. We are in desperate need of innovative programs that will entice more Jewish teens to travel to Israel so that they become acquainted with our homeland early in life. As I stood in Israel this summer, watching the participants in the JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest, I remembered the magic of my first visit to Israel with my peers. It was inspiring to witness our teenagers experience that moment themselves. From Opening Ceremonies to final arts performances, from a visit to the Kotel for the first time to a simple interaction with other Jewish teens from countries on the other side of the globe, it is programs like the JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest in Israel that leave an indelible mark on our teens.

Dan Deutsch is Director of the JCC Maccabi Experience.