Phyllis Osher, who has been teaching Hebrew school students about Israel for years, has not been there herself since 1982.
That will change in August, when Osher goes to Israel on a new program of the Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, which will pay for 40 Hebrew and pre-school teachers to go to Israel for 10 days.
“We want to make Israel come alive, but it cannot be done just from a textbook,” Osher said. She is the director of the religious school at Congregation Ahavas Achim, an unaffiliated Conservative synagogue in Newburyport, Mass. Three other teachers from Osher’s school are going with her — two of whom never have been to Israel.
The executive director of the Lappin Foundation, Debbie Coltin, said she had heard of a few small programs that send Hebrew school teachers to Israel, but not on this scale.
The program for teachers is part of a boom in programs sending American Jews to Israel — the most famous of which is Birthright Israel. But foundation chairman Robert Lappin said he thinks many of these programs catch people too late to make a difference in their decisions to remain Jewish.
“The real answer is to catch kids while they are teens,” Lappin told the Forward.
The new teacher program is an outgrowth of a long-standing program funded by Lappin’s foundation. Since 1996, the foundation has fully subsidized a two-week trip to Israel for any teen who lives in the Jewish community on Massachussetts’s North Shore, where Lappin lives. Some 60% of the Jewish kids in the region take advantage of Lappin’s teen program. This year, 120 are going at a cost of $4,000 each.
But the foundation heard complaints from participants, and these seemed to indicate that the teen program alone was not enough. In focus groups teen participants said that before their trips, they had learned little about Israel.
“Our kids tell us that they are very ignorant when they go,” Lappin said.
To counter this, the foundation decided to send the teachers who are often the first Jewish mentor many children have. Lappin chose to focus the resources on Hebrew schools rather than on day schools, because, he said, the Hebrew schools are frequently underserved and reach a more vulnerable population.
The teacher program will be the first time that the Lappin Foundation has worked extensively with other funders; $56,000 of the $106,000 being spent on the teachers is coming from six other philanthropists.
One of those funders, Arthur Epstein, said, “Most students who go to Hebrew school find it very boring. We have to find ways to make it more interesting.”
About half the 40 teachers going to Israel had never been, and none had been in the past four years.
At Shirat Hayam’s nursery school, eight of the 10 teachers going on the trip never have been to Israel, including Leslie Sack, director of the school. Sack said that her teachers have been struggling to find ways to put more of Israel into the education they are providing their nursery school students.
“To be able to go for the first time is exciting in itself,” Sack said, “but to go with other, likeminded educators — we’re very excited about it.”
For Osher, the trip will also close a loop of sorts. She first went to Israel in 1973 with a subsidy from Lappin’s foundation. It was on her second trip that she met her husband. And now her daughters are taking advantage of Lappin’s youth trips to Israel. For her, though, the focus on Hebrew school teachers makes sense.
“We’re the first line for Jewish education and continuity,” Osher said. “If we cannot inspire our children and their families about Israel, who can?”