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Focus on Issues: Building Jewish Identity, Israel Programs Hit Their Mark

On a sweltering summer day, about 60 students sit hunched over a passage from Genesis.

Divided into pairs and trios, they loudly debate the text’s meaning, throwing in some commentaries from Rashi or Rambam to bolster their arguments.

Sitting around small wooden tables, their hands in constant motion, they concentrate all their energies on the text before them.

Although there’s nothing unusual about a bunch of students tackling a difficult passage, the ones in this room are far from typical yeshiva “bouchers.”

The students, 95 percent of whom are college graduates from North America, are participating in Pardes, a yearlong program that combines Jewish studies with community service.

Unlike most local yeshiva students, whose dress code usually consists of white shirts and black hats, these budding scholars wear T-shirts, shorts — or skirts.

The program is both coed and political, something far from typical in religious Israeli circles.

With the new emphasis Diaspora Jewish communities are placing on “Israel Experience” programs, scenes such as those found at Pardes are becoming more and more common.

Alarmed by the high rate of assimilation and intermarriage among young Jews, many Jewish communities have begun promoting Israel-based programs as a means of fostering Jewish identity and continuity.

To meet the demand, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization, with funds raised by the United Jewish Appeal, are earmarking increasing amounts of money for Israel Experience programs.

This year, a full 45 percent of the money dispensed by the WZO’s Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education is subsidizing Israel programs for Diaspora youth.

Experts concur that even though time spent in Israel is not a cure-all, it does tend to enhance commitment to Jewish culture and values.

“Research, experience and common sense all show that the most powerful experience a youngster can have, in terms of building Jewish identity, is a positive visit to Israel,” says David Harman, director general of the Joint Authority.

According to Harman, about 13,000 North American teens and young adults will visit Israel on organized programs this year.

Of these, 7,500 are participating in six-week summer trips run by such youth movements as Young Judaea, B’nei Akiva and Betar.

About 3,000 teen-agers are enrolled in post-high school programs, predominantly in a yeshiva setting, while 300 more attended yearlong work-study programs run by various youth movements.

Another 1,800 undergraduates study annually in Israel as part of their junior year abroad, according to WZO officials. Some 1,000 college graduates attend programs ranging from three weeks to one year.

Depending on their interests, youths can choose from a long list of adventures during their stay in Israel.

In addition to visits that combine study and sightseeing, young people can participate in archaeological digs, volunteer to help new immigrants or try a professional internship.

“We wanted to offer a diversity of experiences, since not all kids are interested in the same things,” Harman says.

Program directors and educators say the programs pay off in the long run.

“I don’t have any statistics to quote you,” says Gloria Dror, an academic adviser at The Hebrew University’s Rothberg School for Overseas Students.

“All I can tell you is what the kids tell me–that the year they’ve just spent in Israel was the best year of their lives,” she says. “Either they come back to Israel later on, or they become more committed Jews back home.”

Stu Snee, director of community relations at Livnot U’Lehibanot, a program that attracts North American college graduates with little or no Jewish background, says: “Coming to Israel and doing Livnot definitely enhances Jewish identity.”

A work-study program that requires participants to repair dilapidated housing in the mornings and to engage in afternoon seminars on Jewish topics, Livnot “is a Jewish supermarket,” Snee says.

“People come here and try out everything to see what they want to buy, in a non coercive setting,” he continues. “We emphasize community service and hiking. Both are a way to use the land of Israel as a classroom.”

Snee is convinced that his group’s three-month program profoundly affects many of the participants.

“We have 1,500 alumni, and we know they’re living much more Jewish lives than before,” he says. “Ninety-eight percent of them marry Jews, which is amazing when you consider that 50 to 60 percent came to the program with a non-Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend.”

Baruch Feldstern, acting director of Pardes, says it is no coincidence that Jewish youths dating non-Jews are attracted to Israel.

“On a certain level, it could be that they are giving Israel [and Judaism] a last chance before they get married,” he says.

“It seems to me that the more Judaism and Jewish concerns become central in a person’s life, the more they will want to share these values with their families. It follows that there will be less chance of intermarriage.”

Although words such as these are enough to make some kids choke on their falafel, reality does seem to bear them out.

When asked how they rated their experiences in Israel, all 10 of the students talking to a visiting journalist could barely contain their enthusiasm.

The comments of Hallie Beecher, a 24-year old Toronto native, were typical:

“I went to synagogue twice a year and to Hebrew school on Sundays. I hated it and rebelled as much as possible. I grew up with a Jewish identity, but no background.”

It was not until college that she began to explore Judaism, in courses such as “The Hebrew Bible” and “Women in Judasim,” she says.

“I had planned to spend a year in India after graduation, but my parents said, `You’ve never been to Israel, so why not try that?”

Beecher, who spent a couple of months on a kibbutz before enrolling in Livnot, calls her decision “the choice of a lifetime.”

“It gave me a love for Judaism, an understanding of the way traditional Judaism is practiced,” she says. “Judaism isn’t just theory in a book, but alive and breathing and beautiful.”

Prior to joining Livnot, Beecher was seriously involved with a non-Jew she met on kibbutz.

“He had planned to move to Toronto, but that’s all over with now,” she says. “I need to be in a Jewish marriage and to have a Jewish life with someone ready to bring Jewish continuity into the house.”

And there’s more, Beecher says. “My parents have been very supportive. They’re checking out courses and synagogues for me back home,” she says.

“It’s ironic, but my experiences have brought my parents back to Judaism, too.”

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