Lack of Teens for Israel Trips Puts Programs’ Future in Jeopardy

Last summer was a bad year for providers of teen touring programs in Israel.

This summer will be considerably worse.

Providers say that the sharp declines in the number of young adults traveling to Israel is threatening the long-term viability of Israel experience programs.

Israel trips boomed in the 1990s amid widespread optimism about the prospects for Middle East peace, backing from prominent philanthropists and research indicating that trips to Israel were one of the most powerful ways to boost the Jewish identity of North Americans.

But this summer, the number of North American young adults visiting the Jewish state is down by an estimated 50 percent to 90 percent from 2000, the last summer before the violent Palestinian intifada began driving away tourists.

Advocates for such programs worry that even if the situation in Israel improves, it will take a long time to rebuild their infrastructure and convince American Jews that Israel trips are an important rite of passage.

For summer programs, most of which depart in late June and last five or six weeks, the situation has never looked bleaker. Among the data:

Most community-wide, Jewish federation-sponsored teen trips have been canceled, as have the Zionist youth movement’s Habonim Dror program in Israel. Habonim instead is offering a summer camp program in upstate New York for kids who would have gone to Israel.

The Reform movement, once the largest single provider of teen trips to Israel, is sending only 10 to 20 kids this summer. “It’s a far cry from the 1,391 kids we had two years ago,” said Paul Reichenbach, director of youth programs for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Last summer, the UAHC canceled its teen programs in Israel altogether.

The Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth is sending 100 teens, compared with an average of 450 to 650 before the intifada. The movement’s Camp Ramah is sending 70, compared with 230 in previous years.

The Orthodox Union is sending 80 teens — most of them day school students who will be studying, rather than touring most of the summer. It has cancelled its Israel touring program — which used to send more than 100 each year — for public school students. Before the intifada, 400 teens went on the study programs and the touring programs attracted more than 200.

Birthright Israel sent 5,700 young adults aged 18 to 26 from all over the world — with the United States sending the largest contingent — on free 10-day trips to Israel last summer. This year, officials are declining to give specific registration numbers, saying they are still accepting applications. However, a spokesperson said anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 Americans are expected to participate.

Despite the small numbers, most groups say they are pleased to be sending anyone at all this summer, given a steady spate of terrorist attacks.

Most programs had heavy security and almost no unstructured free time last summer, and are taking additional precautions this year.

For example, USY will house teens on campuses in the suburbs of Jerusalem, rather than in hotels in the city. It also is allowing participants to bring cell phones so their parents can reach them instantly.

One bright spot, at least for now, is that registration for more intensive Israel experiences — such as yearlong, post- high school programs — that attract youth from highly committed Jewish families is holding steady or even growing.

Young Judaea has 140 people registered for its year course, and is still receiving applications. This year it sent 150, its highest enrollment ever.

Habonim Dror also is expecting its usual year course enrollment — between 20 and 30.

USY’s yearlong Nativ program is expecting at least the usual enrollment of between 35 and 45 high school graduates, and possibly more.

Yossi Garr, USY’s central shaliach, or Israel emissary, said the group is “pleasantly surprised” by the success of the year course and believes it is doing better than summer programs because “the families sending their kids on the year programs are especially committed.”

The courses also may be doing better because participants feel like this is their only opportunity, he said.

With “a summer program you can always say, ‘If I don’t go this summer, I can go next year,’ ” Garr said. “With a year program, especially like Nativ, if you don’t go now it’s not going to happen. And some of these kids have been planning for four years that they want to go.”

Enrollments in post-high school yeshiva programs, attended primarily by Orthodox Jews, have been considerably less affected by the violence in Israel.

Details on study abroad programs at Israeli universities were not available, but the programs — which generally enroll many first-time visitors to Israel– appear to have more in common with the summer teen programs than the year courses.

The situation is taking its toll on infrastructure.

Most Israel programs say they have been forced to cut staff in Israel and the United States. Some, like Young Judaea, have been bailed out somewhat by the national organizations that sponsor them.

In addition, several philanthropists — including Birthright founders Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman — have provided funds for a new organization, the Alliance for Educational Programs in Israel, that is helping six Israel programs not linked to larger Jewish groups.

So far, the group’s members include teen programs like the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, and programs for recent college graduates, like Machon Pardes, a coeducational yeshiva.

In exchange for low-interest loans and consulting help, alliance member groups are streamlining their budgets and combining resources on several projects, including a special trip this summer for 400 alumni of Birthright Israel trips.

However, officials with other Israel programs warn that without a broader effort, the very future of Israel education for young adults is in danger.

“We’re hoping groups will come back next year, but we all realize we’re facing a five- to 10-year re-education project for the teens and their parents to understand what it means to make Israel a part of your ongoing educational ladder and sequence,” said Rabbi Sheldon Dorph, national director of Camp Ramah.

For groups like Ramah, which operates several summer camps across North America, the drop in Israel programs is expected to have ripple effects in their camps at a time when they are under pressure to offer more, not less, Israel education.

Traditionally, campers at Ramah, the UAHC camps and Young Judaea have gone to Israel, rather than to camp, the summer they are 16. They return to camp the following year as junior counselors.

In those movements, the Israel summer usually revs up the future counselors, enabling them to share their enthusiasm for Israel with their charges the following summer.

Graduates of the Reform movement’s Israel program “were great role models as staff members in our camps,” Reichenbach said. However, because the UAHC sent no teens to Israel last summer and is sending few this year, in the coming years “many fewer of our counselors will have had an Israel experience.”

Ramah’s Dorph said, “Next year, most of our junior counselors — who give all that spirit to the kids coming up — will not have been to Israel.”

The absence of such graduates will make it harder to recruit for Israel trips in the coming years, he said.

“Compared to what Israel is facing now, this is a small piece, but educationally it’s a major issue,” Dorph said.

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