Gov't may foot bill for Diaspora schoolteachers' Israel trips

Participation has grown slower than hoped because, say insiders, the programs are poorly advertised.

tourists 88 (photo credit:)
tourists 88
(photo credit: )
The government may soon help fund trips to Israel for Diaspora educators, under a proposal being examined in the Prime Minister's Office. On Monday, an internal advisory meeting chaired by cabinet secretary Oved Yehezkel discussed a new track for Masa, a government agency that brings Diaspora youth to Israel for five- and 10-month programs. "The plan is to create a new path" for teachers in Jewish schools in the Diaspora to come on two-week trips, Yehezkel told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday. Though still in the planning stages, the project could be underway by 2009, since "the money is there" in unused funds slated for Masa participants, he said. The Masa framework brings some 8,000 youths to Israel each year, up from about 4,000 four years ago, according to the organization's figures. But the government had offered to pay its share for up to 20,000 annually. Participation has grown slower than hoped because, say insiders, the programs are poorly advertised in Diaspora communities and remain expensive despite the government grants. The grants average about $4,000 per participant, a small part of the $15,000 average cost for a 10-month program. "The experience of coming to Israel is dramatic," said Yehezkel, co-chairman of Masa. "It succeeds where the state has failed - in explaining Israel. Israel's image is low not only in the world, but also in Jewish communities. The experience of Israel does the work." "The idea is to create a broader conversation, a communal culture with a deeper connection to Israel," Masa CEO Ayelet Shiloh Tamir said. The new program, as envisioned at this early stage, would include everyone involved in Jewish education, formal and informal, she said. "It doesn't have to be just teachers and principals; it can include people from informal education, from JCCs, rabbis," Shiloh Tamir said. "The idea is to bring every Jewish educator to meet modern Israel. Many educators were here long ago, or never visited Israel, or, even if they did, came to see camels and kibbutzim." The proposal is part of a broader government initiative - in development since mid-February and formally announced by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in June - in which the government plans to invest in the Diaspora. "We have to prove we're serious about this new paradigm," Yehezkel said. "The Americans are very cynical about it, and I want to show them a real change. Jewish education is the common ground for the Jewish people in Zion and in the Diaspora." Veteran educator and former Hillel president Avraham Infeld said he supported the idea. "Anyone crazy enough to go into Jewish education should be entitled to come to Israel in the next five years," he said. "This should be used to teach how to teach Israel as an integral part of Jewish life. The emphasis should be on Jewish peoplehood, of the place of Israel in teaching." The budding initiative was also welcomed by Dr. David Resnick, director of Israel programs for the Jewish Education Service of North America. "The idea of a Birthright-like program for Jewish educators is something we've been floating for a long time," he said, but had not been implemented "because of money. Birthright was sexy, and rightfully so, but no one has been willing to come forward and write checks for Jewish educators to do this." Though some Jewish communities have conducted teacher exchanges, he said, including Boston, Montreal and Los Angeles, "it was never a high-profile, national effort." The major caveat to his overall support, Resnick said, was that: "It should be a professional growth experience, not a Birthright experience. It has to be a kind of melding of personal experiences with a professional Jewish education component. They have to find resources, meet the people and forge professional links they can follow up with." For this reason, Resnick said, the trips should be contemplated from the start as group programs. "Since we're expecting these people to grow from this, it will be a lost opportunity if there is no follow-up," he said. "So they should come as a school, or on teacher exchanges through Partnership 2000. Or they could follow organizational lines, such as having TALI schools here [in Israel] connect to Conservative [Movement] schools there." "This isn't meant to be tourism," Shiloh Tamir said, "but a modern and deep conversation about Israel's cultural world, political world, educational leaders. Right now, people see Israel either through philanthropy, and then we're pathetic, or through threats to our survival, where we're either heroic or endangered, or through 'milk and honey,' which is a fiery spiritual experience that doesn't offer the next step [for engagement]. Here the idea is to create a real connection, a conversation with a living culture."