Another summer season has passed and parents of high-school-age teens who wanted to give their children an experience of Israel had to dig deep into their pockets and pay the full cost. Programs for teens that range from three to six weeks can cost up to 10,000 dollars for teens coming from the West Coast or other remote areas. Others might pay less, but still the cost is extremely high. Once again, it is evident that raising Jewishly educated children is obscenely expensive.
When Jews travel to Israel, the effect of the trip works on two levels. First, the trip is a personal growth experience. By way of visiting Israel, participants go through a personal experience of exploration, learning, broadening of social networks and reflection on their identity and future personal connections with Israel.
There is a second level that is incorporated in the travel experience. Jewish travel to Israel is also a public and communal statement. When Jews come to Israel, particularly in the framework of organized educational programs, the act of visiting Israel generates a statement beyond the effect on the individual. Through the visit, the travelers and their hosts affirm the notion of Jewish peoplehood, the centrality of the State of Israel in Jewish life and the importance of solidarity and mutual responsibility between Israel and world Jewry.
This is why we should see organized travel to Israel as a prominent matter of Jewish public policy. Since public funds from the government of Israel, Jewish communities and philanthropists are heavily invested in subsidizing organized trips, it is important to open up to public debate basic policy questions regarding this investment.
Travel to Israel is costly, so if the organized Jewish world wants to see masses of young Jews coming to Israel, the trips need to be subsidized. One question that has often been asked relates to the timing of such subsidized educational trips: At what age should we strive to bring as many young Jews as possible to Israel?
Birthright decided over 15 years ago that the free trip to Israel offered through the Taglit system would be open to post-high-school-age youth and beyond. In the absence of a unified global planning system, Birthright’s decision became a de facto global Jewish policy statement. Because of this decision, and the fact that Birthright is such a heavily funded venture, the programs bringing high-school-age youth to Israel were excluded from the subsidy. Though there was never a formal policy decision made to discourage high-school-age teens from travelling to Israel, the reality was that teen programs and their participants were left out of the financing formula.
It is time to put this issue in the center of the public Jewish policy debate. There is a broad consensus among educators, community leaders and researchers that coming to Israel (usually for the first time) during the high school years is the optimal way to solidify a sustainable Jewish identity and build lifelong relationships with Israel. Simply put, the organized Jewish world and the State of Israel have a vested interest in ensuring that as many high-school-age youth as possible will have an experience of visiting Israel prior to leaving their homes to pursue higher education and other related life choices. Sadly, today’s de facto Jewish policy does not support this goal.
Birthright should continue its important mission. It has become a game changer as a platform for bringing masses of young adults to Israel for a powerful experience. But this should not be at the expense of the possibility to bring masses of teens to Israel prior to the Birthright eligibility age threshold.
Subsidized programs for teens should not be identical to Birthright’s. Teen programs can and should be longer, and they need not be free of charge. The length and cost of such trips, as well as the modalities of operation, should also be up for public debate. The overarching goal of the Jewish people should be to have a fair play and seamless transition between various subsidized programs for Jewish youth, young adults and beyond.
World Jewry has a broad goal of securing the Jewish future of the next generation. It is time that the policies that furnish those organized efforts reflect this goal, distributing public funds wisely and effectively.
Elan Ezrachi is a Jerusalem-based consultant to international Jewish organizations. His report to Lapid Israel, “High School Age Travel to Israel: Strategic Directions and Recommendations for the Future,” appeared in December 2014.