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Is Free Really the Way To Go?

At around this time of year the Tel Aviv beaches are filled with foreigners, hotels are booked to the last room, and thousands are floating their troubles away at the Dead Sea. Many programs have brought Jews, specifically those of college age, to Israel. The most popular of these programs, of course, is the Taglit-Birthright trip, which has allowed roughly 300,000 young Jews to visit the Jewish homeland. Still, even with this success, one of the questions that has repeatedly troubled the Jewish establishment is how to continue the connection — how can we make the 10 day experience last a lifetime?

This is, perhaps for all the Jewish organizations involved, the game changer that transforms the face of modern Jewish activity for the next generation. After seeing Israel first hand, students leave the country with more questions than answers — a reaction that should be seen only as positive. For some, these questions lead them to become more involved in pro-Israel organizations on college campuses and many organizations have sprung up to proactively advocate for Israel, or as they call it: “hasbara.”

Hasbara Fellowships, Binyan, CAMERA, AIPAC, CJP, JNF, RAJE — these are but a handful of organizations that offer trips to Israel at unbelievably low costs, some of which can even be free. But not all of these organizations are affiliated with pro-Israel advocacy. Many look to broaden the base of possibilities by including programs based on the Jewish belief in tikkun olam. These programs look to attract students with interests in the environment, volunteering, community relations, and social change. To qualify for some trips you are required to become a “satellite” of their organization on your college campus. For some this means distributing the organization’s material, running programs or bringing speakers to campus.

However, within this context there lies a foundational problem. From my observations and experiences as an attendee on these trips as well as an involved pro-Israel advocate on a university campus, many of the people participating in these trips have an already established Zionist foundation running in their blood. They have been raised in the school of Zionism and would be devoted to the Jewish State with or without these trips. They travel to Israel with their families, they study in yeshiva before university, and they learn in Israel during gap years. With time, their involvement and dedication to the Zionist dream would have most likely increased either way. This is not, of course, to deride the organizations at work today. The work they perform whether it is pertinent to Israel advocacy or not, is all-important.

There needs to be a shift in our thinking if we wish to attract young Jews who go through life seeing Israel as a distant homeland that exists only in the news and in pages of the Torah. A recent Forward editorial claims that the main issue with these trips is that they are free; free trips devalue the experience and cause participants to see them in a more negative light. This argument, although provocative, is not where I believe the issue lies. A poll conducted by the UJA-Federation of New York found that only 56% of Hasidim stated that they felt very attached to Israel. Put together, New York City’s Orthodox and Russian speaking Jews comprise 56% of the city’s Jewish population.

Clearly, there are some key demographic groups being left out of the equation. From afar, the compilation of Israel programs looks to be an idea that has gone pell-mell. But perhaps this is exactly what is needed. Harking to an economics principle as the Forward editorial did, the free market is a place where individuals pursue their own self-interests, yet the total social benefit to society is positive. Perhaps the many different groups, by pursuing their own “Israel-niche,” are creating a positive outcome for future generations’ interest in Israel. If this is to be true, then the system should not change and the status-quo of Israel programming should remain the same. At the same time, if the lack of any centralization of these groups creates a negative outcome, and this certainly may be the case, then strategy must be reexamined.

Free trips to Israel, with all their enticement, seem to be so simple on paper. Yet when put out into the real world the principles and theories worked out on paper don’t hold. A complete overhaul of the current environment does not seem to be necessary. Rather, these groups should come together at a conference and meet to clearly define and lay out their respective purposes, missions, and targeted audience. These organizations must come together and assess what they are looking to achieve individually, and what are they looking to achieve together. How they choose to bridge this gap will provide a much-needed answer for future generations of young Diaspora Jews.

Ryan Yuffe, 18, was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a freshman studying at Brandeis University.

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