Metuka Benjamin believes she has found a model for Jewish education, which could help stem the tide of assimilation and alienation from Judaism and Israel currently sweeping over American Jewry.
The president of Los Angeles’ Milken Community Schools, an Israeli born educator, is the originator of the Tiferet Israel Fellowship – a three-year program that provides an intensive Israel experience for high school students.
Benjamin, as part of her program, brought a group of 41 highschool seniors to Israel last week, and sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss her approach to engaging her students with their Jewish identity.
A graduate of Columbia University and the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, Benjamin was one of the founders of the Reform Stephen S. Wise Temple School network, and currently runs the Milken highschool, which split from SSWT two years ago and categorizes itself as nondenominational.
Told by a number of Jewish leaders that it is impractical to integrate Israel into the curriculum, Benjamin said she “decided to do it anyway.”
Benjamin told of how sitting on the beach in Tel Aviv during a vacation she decided to create a new curriculum, with a strong focus on Israel, which she said she eventually intends to export to other schools.
Building on the initial integration of Israel into the curriculum, Benjamin created the Tiferet program, which allows for an extended and immersive experience of Israel.
Speaking to the Post in November, Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, said that he believes an expansion of existing programs, such as Birthright, is key to preserving Jewish identity.
“Part of it is taking the initiatives that we have, and really developing them and bringing them up to scale,” he said, recommending that younger people be brought to Israel.
Saxe himself has authored several studies connecting Birthright to heightened Jewish identity and lowered rates of exogamy (marriage outside the faith).
This is precisely the approach Benjamin takes.
Students in the Tiferet program begin by studying for a full semester at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) during their sophomore year.
Eleventh graders then spend a year going on retreats in which they study Israel advocacy, are taught public speaking and attend the annual AIPAC conference.
During the program’s final year, participants come to Israel for a two-week trip.
“We send them in our own community to speak” about Israel, Benjamin said of her students, explaining how teaching them to speak out for Israel ensures their commitment to their own Jewish and Zionist identities.
There is “absolutely” a higher rate of engagement among graduates of the program than among the general Jewish population, she asserted.
Beyond bringing a Birthright style immersive experience to her students at a younger age, Tiferet also provides the follow-up to time spent in Israel that many Jewish Federation leaders have said is lacking in the wider Jewish community, she said.
At the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Jerusalem last year, Barry Shrage, Boston Federation chief, said that “most communities offer [Birthright returnees] absolutely nothing to do except raising money for the Federation.”
Shrage’s statement was part of the refrain created by the speakers at the gathering and reflects the current consensus among many Jewish professionals.
This is a notion also shared by Israel.
Discussions are currently being held to determine just how to follow-up on Birthright, by participants in the government’s new strategic initiative for the Diaspora, which seeks to inject roughly $1.5 billion into the worldwide Jewish communities over the next two decades.
Describing her program as both an immersive experience and a successful follow- up, Benjamin said that “this is a successful program that could really help many youngsters with the goal of being connected.”
“I have evidence of something that works well.”