Missing the ‘Experience’ of a Lifetime

By Elan Ezrachi

Published July 04, 2003, issue of July 04, 2003.
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One of the direct outcomes of the intifada has been the dramatic decline in the numbers of Jewish visitors to Israel. The most striking of all was the collapse of the “Israel Experience,” as the youth trips to Israel were commonly called during the 1990s.

From the summer of 2000, when a record 10,000 North American Jewish youth visited Israel, the numbers have plunged 92%. In the summer of 2002, there were only 820 North Americans of high school age participating in an educational program in Israel — 60% of whom were Orthodox.

Throughout this crisis, it has been accepted that the decline was due to the deterioration of security in Israel. Nevertheless, a mixture of real and perceived danger, combined with the shock of the September 11 terrorist attacks, led us to believe that the halt in travel to Israel was temporary. They will come back, was the common wisdom.

Yet the nature of the events in Israel made it impossible to predict how long this refrain from travel would prevail. The continuous level of violence and the expectations surrounding the war in Iraq put planners and parents in an impossible situation. There were times when even the most passionate lovers of Israel had to reconsider their travel plans.

The data concerning youth who plan to come to Israel in the summer of 2003 is already known. As we face the third summer of the intifada era, now is the time to assess the real problems and challenges.

Happily, this coming summer’s numbers of American teens will double. Similarly, the latest information is that the Birthright Israel program, which serves older ages, is also on the rise, as are the semester and yearlong programs such as Young Judaea Year Course and the Hebrew University Rothberg School for Overseas Students. This growth is happening at the tail end of a regional war and under a cloud of uncertainty that still hangs over the Middle East. Certainly, this is a reason to celebrate.

But a closer look at the demography of the prospective travelers should raise serious concern and unanswered questions. The growth in Israel programs, though near the 100% mark, is actually marginal and therefore insignificant when seen in the context of the rate of travel to Israel until a few years ago.

More problematic is the fact that only certain segments of the community are sending their youth to Israel. The Orthodox groups held steady throughout the crisis and continue to send their youth to Israel. The Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth and Ramah, as well as Hadassah’s Young Judaea summer program, suffered great losses of numbers during the first two years of the intifada, but are now showing a significant increase.

On the other hand, the North American Federation of Temple Youth — the Reform movement’s youth organization, which sent more young Jews to Israel (1,400) than any other group in 2000 — B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and Jewish Community Center Association are nearing the zero mark. Moreover, in 2000 there were 17 local federations that had independent “Israel Experience” programs. We will be lucky this summer if two federations bring small groups of teens to the Jewish state.

We must recognize the sad fact that most American Jewish youth, including those who are deeply involved in Jewish life, will not have a firsthand experience of Israel during their formative years. This is a multilayered loss.

There is proven evidence that contact with Israel — or the lack thereof — affects personal Jewish development. So does the positive peer-group experience of direct encounter between American and Israeli Jewish teens that the “Israel Experience” has been known to provide.

At the communal level, the North American Jewish community lost a vital leadership development mechanism, as the Israel programs proved to be a breeding ground for the next generation of camp counselors and student activists. Luckily, Birthright Israel provides a last chance for some of these youth to get to Israel for a brief encounter. Without the program, the situation would be even worse.

The growth in travel to Israel during this summer will enable us to strengthen the argument that travel to Israel is possible. The security arrangements that programs offer create safe environments that meet very high standards. But this is not enough. We need to make the case that travel to Israel is vital — not only possible.

Even after the violence in the Middle East subsides, it will take years to restore Israel’s image as a great vacation spot. In light of this reality, we need a two-pronged approach.

On the programming side, we need to empower all those who are working with youth to think of strategies to bring the “Israel Experience” back to the forefront. We can point to the noticeable signs of growth as well as think of creative new programs that attract young people to visit Israel. Certain types of marketing strategies, such as the use of alumni, can help this trend.

On the other hand, we have to recognize that travel to Israel, when all is said and done, is an expression of an attitude toward the Jewish state — and not a trigger for future Jewish involvement. The “Israel Experience” of the 1990s — when Israel was “fun under the sun” — did not assume that the youth arrived in Israel with a strong level of Israel attachment. The belief was that the attachment would be developed while in Israel, as an outcome of the program.

The massive decline created a cycle of rapid distancing of American Jews from Israel. In order to break this vicious cycle, the leadership of the North American Jewish community needs to intensify the ideology of Israel in American Jewish life. Only a principled appreciation of the role of Israel in Diaspora Jewish life will lead to the substantial restoration of Israel programs.

As a prominent American Jewish educator recently warned, Diaspora Jewry has reached a point where it is more dangerous not to travel to Israel than it is to visit the Jewish state.

Elan Ezrachi is director of educational programs and experiences at the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Jerusalem-based department for Jewish-Zionist education.

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