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While American college students prepare to visit the Jewish state on free birthright israel trips during the winter school break, teenagers from the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies are staying home. It is the first time in 12 years that Reform and Conservative youths from the New Jersey supplemental school are not taking a 10-day journey to Israel.
They are not the only teens who are not traveling. It appears that the wildly successful birthright israel program, with trips for college-age Jews (18-26) who have never been to Israel, has supplanted some traditional youth trips in the metropolitan New York area and in major Jewish communities around the US.
Not all struggling youth trips are victims of birthright. Some suffered from internal problems, including their cost and timing. Because the teens are students in public schools, they may miss school days to participate in the trips.
There is no question, however, that money matters and that birthright israel has siphoned substantial parental and communal support for "post-Hebrew school" trips. The parental logic seems to be: Why pay for my 11th-grader to go on a trip now when, in a few years, my child can go for free on birthright?
With surveys showing a declining attachment to Israel among American Jews, and with every indication that trips to Israel have a lasting impact on attitudes, who can argue with a free 10-day tour of Israel?
But is birthright israel so superior that it should leave youth programs drowning in its wake?
"Does a 16-year-old who wants to go on an organized program for 10 days not have the same birthright as someone who is 25 and wants to go?" asked Fred Nagler, the principal of the Bergen County school. "No matter how great the birthright trip is, we should not be its collateral damage."
Nagler's Israel trips for 10th-12th graders entailed a year's worth of classes to learn about Israel, prepare for and then review the experience. "It's not just a fun trip, but an education and spiritual trip to Israel," he said.
Although the trips had been subsidized, parents were expected to pay about $500. Some subsidies for high school trips are no longer available. This year, Nagler's school lost communal and other outside funding. Although Nagler tried to keep the cost at $995, many parents chose to wait for birthright.
COMMUNAL federations also seem to be choosing birthright israel over local youth programs, if reluctantly. When the program began, philanthropists, the Jewish Agency and United Jewish Communities were expected to be birthright partners. While philanthropists want the local communities to kick in more for the program, federations seem tapped out. Like Bergen County, they have more demands than birthright.
Misha Galperin, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, summarized the federations' problem in a breathless sentence in a JTA column: "Helping the poor, rescuing captives and resettling immigrants, assisting the elderly and the disabled, educating our youth through day schools and congregational schools, running our Jewish community centers and camps and Hillels, helping revitalize our synagogues, providing inspiring adult education courses and advocating for Israel, promoting social justice and fostering positive intergroup relations are just some of the things Jewish federation system has been asked by its donors to be involved in."
Put more starkly: Do we feed the elderly in our own communities or pay for students to visit Israel?
THIS IS where the discussion becomes ticklish, because it has undertones of the Bund vs. the Zionists. Yet when it comes to the Israel experience debate, this is simply about ensuring that all interested youths get their birthright: a trip to Israel at a time that is appropriate for them.
Some birthright israel staff become downright testy when it is suggested that birthright saps support for high school programs. They point out that during the second intifada some youth movement trips collapsed and are still trying to recover. Youth programs acknowledge problems during the intifada, but say the problem with Israel trips now is financial, not the matsav.
"We went during the intifada in 2002, 2003," Nagler said. "The intifada could not sink our trip; birthright israel did."
The donors are to be commended: Birthright is a marvelous program for those who have not been connected to the Jewish world earlier. But it need not displace the programs that try to engage younger Jews, or disadvantage students who have been to Israel earlier.
There is more at stake than a few 10-day trips for 10th-graders. Consider Young Judaea's "year course" in Israel. Sponsored by Hadassah, it is a 10-month program for high school graduates who defer college entrance to study and volunteer in Israel. Participants in this program lose the opportunity for birthright israel, as would diaspora youth who celebrated bar and bat mitzva in Israel.
The very success of birthright israel should encourage its expansion, not simply in the number of participating students, but in the criteria for participation. The program could subsidize younger students in rigorously reviewed programs of at least 10 days. Rather than having different tour operators jumping on the birthright bandwagon and organizing programs to meet its criteria, Birthright could encourage youth trips that had been cancelled for lack of cash. This might also encourage more federation support for birthright israel, as the strapped communities would not face such difficult choices about which Israel trip to support.
High school and college represent two distinct phases in the development of young people's Jewish values, and trips experienced in high school are different from birthright, said Dr. Wally Greene, the director of Jewish Educational Services at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.
"Birthright should be maximizing this type of involvement with those who are already committed as well as with those who are not yet involved or who are under-committed," he said. "Students who have shown their interest by participating in an Israel educational experience while in high school should not be penalized by being excluded from a college Birthright experience."
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