Former Young Judaea head launches rival year program

"It’s time to make Israel programs more competitive, affordable."

February 2, 2010 03:39
3 minute read.
Former Young Judaea head Keith Berman.

keith berman 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Former Young Judaea Year Course director Keith Berman, who announced his resignation from the organization last month, has launched a new “year in Israel program” for teens Monday aimed at stirring up competition for long-term programs here and making such experiences more affordable to young Diaspora Jews.

“Many charities have very large overheads and bureaucracy that does not need to exist,” Berman, who ran Young Judaea’s wildly successful year program for the past decade, told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview. “We will run our new program with much less overhead.”

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He explained that “it will be another program for [Diaspora] teens to choose from that is much more affordable and in tune with today’s 18-year-olds.”

Called Aardvark Israel – the small mammal is a symbol of an animal that is connected to the ground, like experiencing the Land of Israel, said Berman – the new 10-month program is set to kick off this coming September with two volunteer/study tracks based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

More importantly, Aardvark Israel will offer a very competitive price likely to lower the cost of year programs in general. Berman has already started advertising the program to potential participants in North America and Britain for just under $15,000, significantly less than Young Judaea Year Course and Nativ, which currently ask for more than $22,000 per participant, and Kivunim, which costs more than $30,000 a person.

“Our goal is to offer the best program at the best price,” said Berman, who hopes to start the year with at least 100 participants. “We want to get as many kids as possible to come to Israel because there is nothing better to fight assimilation and to positively increase one’s Jewish identity.”

The program “will be at least $5,000 cheaper than Year Course,” he continued, adding that the cost did not include flights or the traditional weekly food stipend.

“We decided people are better at managing their own money than we are and that many people are good at finding deals on flights or prefer to use frequent-flyer miles,” said Berman. “As far as the stipend for food, we will suggest an amount and encourage participants to create a group budget for the apartment they are living in. It still works out cheaper than any other year program.”

As for the course itself, the decision to base it exclusively in the center of the country – Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – stems from Berman’s own experiences working with teens from the US and Britain.

“They either want to be in the cultural heart of Israel, which is Tel Aviv, or in the spiritual heart, which is Jerusalem,” he said. “It is clear that today’s youth are not the same as in previous generations; peripheral places no longer speak to them, and if the goal is to get them to identify with the country in a positive way, then this is the way to do it.”

Berman, who took four other Young Judaea staff members with him to the new initiative, said he plans to utilize on-line social media to reach potential participants, who will initially come from the US, Canada and Britain, and to spread news about the program via word of mouth.

In addition, he said, the program already has the full support of the Jewish Agency and some financial backing from the Jewish Agency’s flagship MASA framework, which provides scholarships to participants on long-term programs in Israel. Aardvark Israel will also be recognized by the American Jewish University, enabling participants to receive university credits.

The announcement of Aardvark Israel as a rival program to Young Judaea Year Course comes after a year of flux for the Jewish youth movement. Last spring the organization laid off 15 employees, and since then a further 13 people, including Berman, have handed in their resignations.

Furthermore, Young Judaea, one of the largest Zionist youth movements in the US, has seen its funding from Hadassah Woman’s Organization slashed and its two Jerusalem properties – the multi-million-dollar YJ Youth Hostel and Merkaz Hamagshimim, a residential community center for young US immigrants – sold. There is even speculation that as part of its restructuring and downsizing, Hadassah will be forced to partner with the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America in a bid to save the historic movement.

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