Behind the Headlines: Getting More Jewish Teens to Israel Seen As New Priority for U.S. Jewry

More Jewish teen-agers are signing up to visit Israel this summer than ever before.

But that’s not enough, says UJA President Brian Lurie. He believes American Jewry’s goal should be sending 100 percent of its youth to Israel and that the community should put up the money it would take.

That could mean 30,000 Jewish students touring Israel this summer, rather than the 5,000 estimated to enroll, say officials involved in Israel programs for youth.

“There is no question in anyone’s mind that a good Israel experience is the most effective means of committing one to Jewish identity,” said Rabbi Allan Smith, director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregation’s youth division, echoing a conclusion of research papers prepared for the Mandel Commission on Jewish Education in North America.

Smith said Lurie’s goal can be reached, if there is “real, real federation funding” for Israel programs.

“A quality trip to Israel today costs $4,000. Your average parent, for a junior in high school, is willing to spend $2,000. Make it a $2,000 trip, put on a good marketing campaign, and you’ll reach it, little by little,” he said.

Lurie estimated that sending all American Jewish teens to Israel would cost $5 million to $10 million.

“That should be the allocation reality in our communities,” Lurie told a conference on “Trends in Jewish Philanthropy and Communal Leadership” in December.

Before taking the UJA post in September, Lurie headed the Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco, which, he said, boasts the highest percentage of teen-agers on Israel in programs in the nation.

“Seventy-five percent of our confirmands are going every year on an Israel program organized by the synagogues and the Jewish community. Why? Because the community makes it possible that no youth should be excluded,” said Lurie.

“Once it becomes such an active, ongoing program, no one wants to miss it,” he said.

“You can’t make it mandatory,” said Lurie, “but you can make it so attractive that every young person feels peer pressure to go.”

LITTLE MONEY FOR ADVERTISING

Howard Gelbert, director of San Francisco’s Bureau of Jewish Education, said his community spends $100,000 to organize and partially subsidize each year’s Israel program, which annually sends as many as 200 students to Israel after they finish 10th grade.

“The federation professional and lay leadership needs to see an Israel experience as the right of every Jewish child,” he said. “Beyond that, there has to be financial subsidies, and then there needs to be quality.”

Even without subsidies, though, more kids could be recruited for Israel programs if the Jewish community was willing to spend the money, say those in charge of Israel programs.

At the American Zionist Youth Foundation, Ina Strauss bemoans the small budget she has to advertise trips to Israel. The foundation coordinates most of the Israel trips for students sponsored by national agencies and local communities.

“When we advertise, we’re visible. When we’re visible, people think about it,” said Strauss, who directs AZYF’s Israel Program Center.

Currently, the foundation can afford only a small ad in The New York Times, paid for jointly with several Zionist organizations.

But a single, full-page ad last year drew 400 phone inquiries and enrolled “80 kids who would not have gone to Israel otherwise,” Strauss said.

In Israel, the World Zionist Organization allocates nearly $6 million for Israel summer programs for American and other Diaspora youth. It provides another $12 million worth of services, paid for by the programs themselves.

The American Zionist Youth Foundation, like the WZO, the local communities and the Jewish organizations that sponsor Israel tours, are all suffering from reduced allocations, brought on by the need to pay for the absorption of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.

But Rabbi Daniel Allen argues that it is in Israel’s interest to have 90 percent of American Jewish youth going to Israel, not just 10 percent.

“To the extent we will have large numbers of Jewish kids going to Israel, 10 years from now we won’t have a problem with a loan guarantee battle,” said Allen, who is assistant executive vice chairman of the United Israel Appeal.

“We will have a more vocal, more well-organized, more active, pro-Israel Jewish community.”

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