A new, creative program offers Israeli and Jewish teens from the Diaspora to participate in an educational six-day journey about Israel and Jewish identity. iBelong Israel is the name of this new initiative that has already been piloted in various ways.
“The idea is that we want to change the way and age in which Israelis and Jews from around the world experience each other,” Itamar Kremer, director of iBelong Israel told The Jerusalem Post.
“The idea is that we want to change the way and age in which Israelis and Jews from around the world experience each other.”Itamar Kremer
The program is part of the Masa Israeli organization that produces educational and experiential week-long tours for about 30,000 Israeli high school students each year.
The program is acknowledged by the Education Ministry and receives funding from it.
Masa Israeli began 18 years ago, and in the process has changed the way Israeli youth develop their identity. The program is offered to students in 11th grade.
“They go on significant hikes, sleep in the field, volunteer across Israel, visit different historic sites and spend Shabbat in Jerusalem,” Kremer said.
The new program, geared towards Israelis and Diaspora Jews, is similar to the older Israeli track, but has additional elements. “Gen Z asks more difficult questions,” Kremer said, “this generation has less of a memory or physical connection to the Holocaust and Israel is less of a miracle than was considered in previous generations.
“The questions about identity are reflected in what they see in the media or through politics. Instead of being an anchor and a platform for identity questions, these Gen Z Jews in the Diaspora are on the defensive when visiting Israel because they feel that they need to in order to justify their presence here.”
What is iBelong Israel?
iBelong Israel is a five-or-six-day journey for 11th grade Israelis and 10th-till-gap-year ages for Diaspora youth. The Israeli summer camp of iBelong Israel is 10 days, for young Israelis and Diaspora youth in grades 7 to 12, while the 11th and 12th graders are counselors.
“The idea is a joint journey: a bus from Ra’anana with a bus from the USA or Mexico,” Kremer explained. “Each group will travel on their own on the first day, but on the second day, each group is paired with a designated peer group from an Israeli high school or an Israeli with a group from an American high school. These two groups will participate in several activities together for the next two days.”
According to Kremer, only on the third day, “when both sides feel comfortable,” will they join together. “The understanding is that in order to create a joint dialogue, that will be equal and fair, each group must be independent. The main principle is equality and representation of gender and age. The dialogue is not an end but a means.” Kremer emphasized that “the most important thing is the mutual understanding of each other, not a meeting for the sake of meeting, but a journey to find out the identity of each individual.”
Kremer said that from his experience with the few pilot groups, when a group of Israeli and Diaspora youth meet “there is a departure from Israel-centrism,” among the Israelis – mainly an understanding that not everything related to contemporary Jewish life is in Israel.
“Being Jewish does not automatically equal being Israeli,” he elaborated, adding that “once an Israeli child is tolerant with other Jews it will give him the tools to be more inclusive towards his environment. Perhaps an encounter with Diaspora Jewry actually gives an opportunity to recognize pluralism and patience in inner Israeli issues as well.”
The proof-of-concept of iBelong Israel will take place during 2023.
“We are improving logistics and content and are looking to create partnerships with Israeli ministries, Zionist institutions, Jewish Federations and donors that will be part of this fascinating and life-changing journey of an ordinary boy or girl in Israel and in the Diaspora.”