JERUSALEM, Sept. 28 (JTA) – As he was preparing to fly to Israel on a year-long program run by the Young Judaea youth movement, Daniel Gottesman heard about the two recent suicide bombings in Jerusalem. Instead of canceling his trip, however, the 19-year-old from Houston eagerly flew to Israel in early September. “It’s tragic when events like this happen, and as a Jew I feel deeply upset, but I won’t allow terrorism to deter me from coming to the Jewish homeland,” says Gottesman. “I wanted to come, and my parents supported my decision.” At a time when tourists, particularly from the United States, are becoming increasingly anxious about visiting Israel, Gottesman’s resolve is all the more striking. It is, however, far from unique. Despite Israel’s tense security situation, participation in Israel-based programs is actually on the increase. “Terrorism has had no impact on our enrollment,” says Eitan Cooper, education director of the Young Judaea Year Course. “These kids are highly motivated and insisted on coming.” Administrators of many other programs also report full or near-full enrollment. Although the numbers are still being compiled, the people who organize and run Israel-based summer and long-term programs estimate that participation by North American teens and young adults has risen by 10 to 15 percent during the past year. These figures include not only the approximately 8,500 teens who came on programs affiliated with the Jewish Agency for Israel, but another 3,500 who are studying in yeshivot and post-high school programs. These numbers are admittedly a statistical drop in the bucket, since the vast majority of North American Jewish youths do not visit Israel. But the numbers nevertheless offer encouragement to those interested in fostering Jewish identity among Diaspora teens and young adults. Several studies have shown that Diaspora youths feel a greater tie both to Israel and their Jewish roots after spending time in Israel. Armed with this data and boosted by the enthusiasm of returning teen- agers, local Jewish communities are actively promoting trips to Israel. To market these trips in a professional manner, five institutions – the Council of Jewish Federations, the CRB Foundation, the United Jewish Appeal, the Jewish Agency and Israel’s Ministry of Tourism – decided to pool their substantial resources last year. The resulting organization, called Israel Experience, Inc., just completed its first year of operation. Given the many factors that affect a program’s popularity, the CEO of Israel Experience, Joel Schindler, refuses to estimate how much his organization has contributed to this year’s increase. “Our first year of operation has been spent in building an infrastructure. What I can say is that our very existence has enhanced the level of discussion about the Israeli experience in the North American community. “The mere fact that people are talking about the Israel Experience at an (organizational) level has contributed to the fact that more communities, parents and kids are asking for information,” he says. Schindler stresses that the organization’s guiding principal is pluralism – its executive board includes senior representatives from the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements. A marketing expert for much of his professional life, Schindler says the organization’s bid to double participation during the next few years will be based on state-of-the-art marketing techniques. These will include a 1998 program guide in the Jerusalem Report, an Israel-based magazine read by many North Americans. It may also extend to magazine advertising and Israel Experience phone cards. Rather than confine its efforts to ads in the Jewish media, the organization plans to involve secular magazines read by Jewish and non-Jewish teens and young adults. “There are many marginally affiliated Jews who read Seventeen Magazine but who don’t read Jewish periodicals,” he says. “We’re looking at the radio as a vehicle. We have a Website. We have a toll-free number.” Israel Experience is also planning to hold a series of seminars from its regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Toronto and New York. These seminars will focus on both marketing techniques and fund-raising activities. Officials involved with Israeli programs say they are monitoring the activities of Israel Experience. Paul Freedman, director of English-language youth programs at the Jewish Agency, notes that participation in agency-affiliated programs rose about 30 percent this past year – before Israel Experience really got up to speed. Israel Experience is “just gearing up. Its real test will come next summer,” says Freedman, who is quick to point out that the Jewish Agency has worked hard to improve its services. Though careful not to have the Agency take all the credit for the past year’s boom, Freedman says, “More programs and individuals are turning to us because they want the best programs at the best prices.” But if the boom continues, it may not matter who claims the credit. As Freedman puts it, “If the kids come to Israel, it’s all worth it.” Israel Experience’s toll-free number is 1-888-99-ISRAEL; its address on the World Wide Web is www.israelexperience.org
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