JERUSALEM (Jul. 18)
“Why did you decide to come to Israel?” Joel Schindler asks a group of shorts-clad American teens who have just arrived in Israel on a United Synagogue Youth summer program.
From the answers, it is evident that these 16- and 17-year-old Americans caught the “Israel bug” from their participation in Jewish youth groups, summer camps and day schools, and from their own friends and family members.
“My whole day-school class is in Israel this summer, so how could I stay home?” says a girl from New Jersey.
“My brother and sister went on a Young Judea trip and raved about Israel, and I didn’t want to miss the experience,” adds a young New Yorker.
For Schindler, the newly appointed CEO of Israel Experience Inc., a recently launched consortium dedicated to promoting Israel-based youth programs, these responses only reinforce what studies have already shown:
That youths with strong ties to the Jewish community are more apt to participate in Israel Experience programs than their unaffiliated counterparts.
That such programs tend to strengthen Jewish identity and to discourage assimilation.
The challenge, Schindler says, is to attract the estimated 200,000 American Jewish teens whose ties to the community are negligible at best.
Schindler is head of the consortium — made up of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal, the Jewish Agency/World Zionist Organization and the Charles R. Bronfman Foundation — that earlier this year replaced the American Zionist Youth Foundation as the central address for Israel youth programs.
Schindler hopes to double, perhaps even triple, the number of American teens who now participate in Israel Experience programs.
But accomplishing this will not be easy. Annually, only 2 percent of the 255,000 Jewish teen-agers in the United States participate in Israel-based programs.
Each year, about 6,000 Americans, ages 14 to 17, visit Israel during the summer, while another 4,000 study, work and tour for longer periods.
While the rate of assimilation and intermarriage have soared during the past decade, the number of young visitors to Israel has remained virtually unchanged.
David Harman, director general of the Jewish Agency/WZO’s Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, is confident that the consortium can significantly boost participation.
“Everyone involved in this new undertaking believes that the potential for these trips is much greater,” he said. “The problem is that they haven’t been marketed properly.”
This is where Schindler comes in.
Charles Bronfman, the consortium’s chairman of the board, says, “Schindler was the search committee’s unanimous choice, both for his marketing sense and the fact that personally he is so taken with Israel Experience programs because he is a product of them. We believe that he can go to a city and help get people to unite behind the cause.”
Although Schindler, a biologist-turned-marketing executive who has clients inside and outside the Jewish community, will not assume his consortium post until September, his passion for Jewish youth programs is evident from his background.
Raised in upstate New York, Schindler became actively involved in Young Judea as a teen-ager, eventually serving as its treasurer.
After attending the movement’s summer camps, he spent a year in Israel on Young Judea Year Course, an experience he terms “life transforming.”
He stayed on in Israel to attend the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in biochemistry, after which he returned to the United States for doctoral study.
“My experience has taught me what the Land of Israel is all about and why it is so important to the future of the Jewish people,” he says. “I come to my own Jewishness through an intense passion for Israel.”
Despite his success in the private sector, Schindler says he accepted the consortium post “because I don’t believe there’s anything more important on the American Jewish agenda than getting young kids to Israel.”
“More than half of our kids marry outside the Jewish people,” he says. “If we want to ensure the survival of our people, we must instill in youth the desire to remain connected. That’s where Israel Experience programs can make the difference.”
Armed with an annual budget of $2 million for at least the next two years, with up to $10 million available for the next five years, Schindler hopes to involve not only youth movements, which traditionally attract the most teens to Israel programs, but local federations and synagogues as well.
Sounding every bit the marketing expert, Schindler says, “We need this to be a consumer-based process. We want to ask the communities what they want Israel programs to look like. What will best serve Tulsa or Minneapolis may not work in Boston or Phoenix.”
For example, “some communities are linked with communities in Israel through Partnership 2,000, and they might want to send some of their young people to Israel to help the underprivileged,” he says, referring to a UJA program that links American communities and Israeli regions.
“Such a program might be integrated into the day school or Hebrew school curriculum. Kids from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox backgrounds would all be attracted, and this could serve as a way to bridge religious gaps within the community.”
Schindler stresses that the consortium has no immediate plans to create new Israel programs.
“We don’t want to be program providers,” he says. “We want to be program enlargers. What’s out there is good. The challenge is to attract more kids.”
Before this can be accomplished, he says, local communities will have to allocate additional resources, both financial and personal, in the fight to keep teens identifiably Jewish.
“We need to compel communities to invest in their own youth for the sake of their own futures,” Schindler says.
“We need to recognize that the initial problem is one of awareness and relative importance. Jewish continuity is not yet a high enough priority for many communities across the United States.”