Focus on Issues: Philanthropists, Educators Join to Make Israel Integral for Youth

A group of Jewish philanthropists, educators and Israel-program administrators wants to revolutionize the Israel experience – - starting in America.

A report soon to be issued by the Youth and Education Task Force of Israel Experience, Inc. is calling on North American Jews “to once and for [all] do what has never been done in American Jewish life: to develop a total, coordinated, and comprehensive effort to make the Israel experience an integral part of the life of every young Jew.”

“As a matter of principle,” said Brandeis University’s president and the task force’s chairman, Jehuda Reinharz, quoting the report’s recommendations, “no Jewish education should be considered complete without an Israel experience.”

The idea that spending time in Israel strengthens Jewish identity has been well-established, yet only 15 percent of North American Jews ever make the trip.

Israel Experience, Inc. — a consortium of the UJA-Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Charles R. Bronfman Foundation – - was launched two years ago to at least double participation in Israel-based programs through marketing campaigns. Since then it has witnessed an increase of 50 percent enrollment in such programs, primarily among high school students.

Earlier this year, Michael Steinhardt, a leading Jewish philanthropist, introduced plans for Birthright Israel, an ambitious international initiative to enable every Diaspora Jew to spend time in Israel.

What the task force report — titled “Im Tirzu” after Theodor Herzl’s Zionist motto, “If you will it, it is no dream” — recommends, however, is not only a systematic approach for promoting Israel-based programs, but a community-wide “cultural change” in the way North American Jews regard Israel.

“It’s a question of mind set and of understanding that Israel is an important part, a necessary part of the Jewish identity,” Reinharz said in a telephone interview.

Reinharz was joined in developing the report by Avram Infeld, director of the Birthright Israel project, Marlene Post, the president of Hadassah, and Cindy Chazen, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, Conn., as well as Jewish educators and professors from Israel and America.

Their report, which comes after a yearlong, in-depth examination of Israel- based programs, recommends the following “comprehensive and embracing” action:

integrating a contemporary vision of Israel at every level of the American Jewish educational experience,

developing programmatic standards for educational content and a system of accreditation, and

mobilizing Jewish leaders and the entire Jewish communal infrastructure to make the Israel experience a paramount priority in Jewish life.

The report urges the Jewish community to deliver a consistent message to students and parents: “We are committed to your Israel experience and we will do all in our power to facilitate and prepare you for it.”

Joel Schindler, the outgoing chief executive officer of Israel Experience, Inc., however, advised caution in delivering this message to teen-agers, who are generally more excited by the possibility of making friends than participating in what they might perceive to be an expanded form of Hebrew school.

“I firmly believe that the Israel experience needs to be positioned and marketed as a fun experience,” said Schindler, stressing that the educational components can come into play once the participants arrive in the Jewish state.

“The power of the experience will necessarily be transformative,” said Schindler, who has a background in biochemistry and marketing.

Taking a cue from the Birthright project’s intended goals, the next incarnation of Israel Experience, Inc. would broaden its target constituency to include Bar and Bat Mitzvah-aged teen-agers and college students, as well as young families. It would also expand programming for participants before, during and after each trip to Israel.

In April, Bronfman and Steinhardt began to speak publicly about cooperating in the endeavor, with the possibility of announcing a formal working relationship in November.

Those plans have yet to be finalized. Bronfman said any discussion of how and when Israel Experience, Inc. and Birthright would work together “right now is really conjecture.”

Still, representatives from Birthright have been involved in preparations for revamping Israel Experience, Inc., which now serves as a clearinghouse for about 200 Israel-based programs for teen-agers, and in hiring a new executive director for the enterprise.

Michael Papo, a longtime Jewish professional in California’s Bay Area, who currently serves as the executive director of the San Francisco-based Koret Foundation, plans to take over Israel Experience, Inc. in October.

An implementation task force should begin work in the coming weeks on how to realize the sweeping recommendations set forth in “Im Tirzu.” A report by Israel Experience, Inc.’s college task force is also expected.

Jeffrey Solomon, the executive director of the Charles R. Bronfman Foundation, said that funding for implementation would come from Israel Experience, Inc. and Birthright, with federations, Jewish camps and schools and Jewish community centers playing an active role in recruitment and promotion.

And while Israel Experience, Inc. will suggest curricular materials, its goal, according to Jonathan Woocher, executive director of the Jewish Education Service of North America, is to spur “a real effort to ask, does the way we expose young people to Israel really help them pose the question, `What does Israel mean to me?’”

Another essential change in perspective, task force members say, is presenting Israel as it stands today, a modern country with its own culture, arts, sports and industries, as well as its own real problems.

“We have to show Israel not simply as a place of refuge for Jews in danger or an outgrowth of the Zionist movement,” said Woocher, who sat on the task force. JESNA is developing a series of books called “Israel in Our Lives,” which examines Israel from a contemporary point of view.

Reinharz said the goal of the enterprise is “to make Israel a dynamic force that will really speak to each individual in a compelling way.”

Moreover, he said, developing personal connections between Diaspora Jews and Israelis has implications beyond fortifying an individual sense of Jewishness.

“I think the shape of Judaism and the Jewish people in the next century will be affected dramatically by whether North American and Israeli Jews see themselves as cousins or as strangers,” Reinharz said.

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