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Israel Program Directors Grapple with Smaller Numbers Caused by Violence

November 6, 2002
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Directors of Israel-based programs for young Jews have a long-term concern these days: How will today’s Diaspora Jewish teen-agers develop a connection with Israel when they’ve never had the opportunity to visit?

The more short-term worry is how to get more kids to participate in their programs.

As the intifada enters its third year, Israel programs are looking at a 92 percent decrease in the number of Jewish youth participating in educational trips to Israel. That means a generation of Jewish teen-agers, college students and young adults who never have been to Israel.

“We might miss half a generation,” said Joe Breman, CEO of the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. “In 30 or 40 years from now, when we need people to make decisions in the Jewish community, it will be people who will have missed a significant element of contemporary Jewish life.”

In the summer of 2002, only 820 high school-aged kids visited Israel on organized trips, down from 10,000 in the year 2000. Around 60 percent of the 820 were on Orthodox programs, while only 322 came on non-Orthodox programs through half a dozen organizations.

“We’re losing participants, and we’re losing counselors who can sell Israel to their campers,” said Shelly Dorph, national director of Camp Ramah, which runs several camps in North America.

This number does not include Orthodox Jews who go to Israel between high school and college. Enrollment in those post-high school yeshivas in Israel is believed to have remained relatively stable.

In an attempt to better understand and confront the problem, 60 program directors and staff members gathered last weekend in Jerusalem to discuss ways of sustaining Israel programs during these tough times, as well as how to promote community awareness of the trips.

The consensus? Israel programs need to think about the long term and to think about ways to keep Israel on the agenda of the American Jewish community until the situation returns to normal.

“In the ’90s, everything was working so well for us, programs were growing, and Israel programs provide real client satisfaction,” said Elan Ezrachi, director of educational programs and experiences at the department for Jewish education with the Jewish Agency for Israel. “The only time we consulted with one another was on marketing strategies.”

As part of the three-day conference, the directors discussed their goals, messages and methods for raising the Israel experience program on the community agenda.

Here’s one sample message: “The one Jewish journey you can never replace. Israel. Let our children go.”

Echoes of Soviet Jewry? Maybe. Yet most directors find that they face resistance from parents, not kids.

“The kids still want to go to Israel,” said Dorph, who usually sends more than 200 campers to Israel on Ramah Seminar, a six-week teen tour geared toward Ramah campers, but sent only 72 this year. “We haven’t devised a strategy to let parents let their kids go.”

Gathered in informal groups on the sunny lawns of Kiryat Moriah, the Jewish Agency’s educational campus in Jerusalem, the participants debated advertising campaigns, security measures, communal attitudes and parental fears.

For instance, it is difficult to convince parents to send their children to Israel using magazine and newspaper ads when the advertisement on the next page asks for donations for terror victims, pointed out Ryan Hass, a representative of the Jewish Agency’s educational department.

If Jewish identity is the plug, it won’t work on the average Jewish parent, said Rick Sherman, a participant from Manchester, England, on Habonim Dror’s yearlong service and leadership program.

“They don’t care about identity,” Sherman said. “Identity is giving 100 British pounds sterling on Kol Nidre.”

One response could be to use program alumni to convince the parents of potential applicants, suggested Bari Weiss, an 18-year-old currently studying on Nativ, a freshman year college program sponsored by United Synagogue Youth.

“Let the kids be the trailblazers,” Weiss said. “Let them convince the parents how much their children will learn on these programs, about religion, Jewish identity and Zionism.”

But it’s still difficult to convince certain parents that they are making the right decision for their children, said Yossi Garr, USY’s shaliach in New York and a participant in the conference.

Particularly on July 31, which was the last day to decide whether to join Nativ. It also was the day of a bombing at Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus campus, where Nativ participants study for one semester.

“Our kids eat lunch at the Frank Sinatra cafeteria every day,” said Garr, referring to the cafeteria where the bombing took place, killing nine.

In a conference call held several days later, the parents of the 23 participants were looking for reassurances from USY staff and each other. For each parent, knowing that the other 22 parents were about to send their child to Israel made it a lot easier, Garr said.

The problem isn’t the programming, nor is it the security, which is as good as can be, program directors agreed.

Most directors have had to tinker with their programs to tighten security, narrowing time spent in major cities, forbidding public transportation and coming up with creative alternatives for six-week, six-month or year-long programs.

Ramah is planning a European tour for summer 2003, which will include 10 days in Israel. The organization also will bring Israeli kids on the trip, in order to emphasize more personal contact.

Nativ held its “mini-mester,” the pre-semester before fall classes began at Hebrew University, on its own Jerusalem campus, before sending its students to Mt. Scopus in mid-October.

Everyone has made adjustments, but no one can make up for the huge drop in participation, said Breman, whose Alexander Muss program has 250 students this year, down from the usual 800 to 900.

The last time Israel programs experienced such a tremendous drop was during the first intifada in the late 1980s, when participation rates dropped around 50 percent for several years. It took nearly a decade for programs to return to their normal figures.

“We have to find a way to tell the communities that what we do is a priority,” Breman said. “There is a lack of understanding, a lack of advocacy for presenting this in an intelligent, comprehensive manner. We’re all in this together.”

For now, the directors have prepared a focused advocacy plan that can be used by any organization with its own constituency, and at the upcoming General Assembly in Philadelphia in late November.

The next step will be for the Jewish Agency to take operational steps to help organizations that want to strengthen their numbers this summer.

“The focus is clear,” said Ezrachi. “You can do programs in Israel, even under tense conditions.”

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