Engaging Jewish teens to connect to a dream

“Jewish teens aren't involved in organizational life anymore,” says Russell F. Robinson, JNF-USA CEO.

High School in Israel helps students prepare for academic success in college (photo credit: JNF USA)
High School in Israel helps students prepare for academic success in college
(photo credit: JNF USA)
Two rites of passage stand out in every Jewish teen’s life – a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and Birthright, a free 10-day trip to Israel. But what happens between these two major events to connect Jewish youth to their heritage, traditions, and way of life? Not enough.
According to research conducted by the Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA), most American Jewish teens do not engage in Jewish life and don’t develop a connection to Israel through available Jewish programs, youth movements, and institutions while they’re in middle and high school – unless they attend a Jewish day school. Unfortunately, only three percent of them do, which means most Jewish teens in America are missing out on this connection.
“Jewish teens aren't involved in organizational life anymore,” says Russell F. Robinson, JNF-USA CEO. “They’re not against it, but the fight to get into universities is brutal and everything that they and their parents focus on during their teen years is about how to get a better CV for their college education. They want to go to the Harvards or Stanfords and the like.” 
“This is the reality of our world. In the Jewish world, we pride ourselves on education and the advancement it creates in our very high-demanding lives. In addition, extracurricular activities and social lives add to the lack of time they have to participate in Jewish programs and contribute to Jewish causes,” he said.
So how do we compete with this? How do we communicate the importance of Judaism and Jewish values like tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world), and develop a strong connection to Israel, the land of the Jewish people? 
Israel Experience for Teens

Students at JNF-USA’s High School in Israel are immersed in 4,000 years of Jewish history where Israel becomes the classroomStudents at JNF-USA’s High School in Israel are immersed in 4,000 years of Jewish history where Israel becomes the classroom
Nearly 20,000 Jewish teens visited Israel annually on medium and long-term programs in the late ’90s. While this may not be a large number considering that there are about 250 000 Jewish teens between ninth and 12th grade in the US in any given year, over the past two decades, a dramatic decline in these numbers has been seen. 
“We were always worried about reaching all of them, but our focus turned to worrying about what we were going to do with Jewish college students, who were facing tough challenges relating to anti-Israel activities on campuses throughout the US,” said Robinson.
“The Jewish organizational solution became Birthright. It’s a great program, a great solution, and it has been very successful, but we took our eye off the ball. The teenage years are the most impressionable and important years in a young person’s development when it comes to leadership, ideas, opinions, self-esteem, self-identity, and a connection to the world around us.”
“An important JNF-USA philosophy or concept is what we call ‘From Birth to the Boardroom’. If you create a positive influence while they’re young, you’ll stay engaged with them until they retire and long after,” he said. “But the gap that has been created during the teen years is one that needs to be filled so we don’t lose them forever, and we have found what we believe is the ideal solution – one that combines the Jewish value of tzedakah with a first-hand experience of Judaism and the people of Israel. We’ve called it Dream Israel: A Teen Travel Initiative.”
Helping Others Brings Reward
“The first part of Dream Israel is the tzedakah project,” said Robinson. “I believe that tzedakah is one of the greatest values of Judaism. It’s the mainstay of Jewish life, the core. Nothing was built without it. Not the First or Second Temple, nor any other Jewish institution since then. It’s the best thing possible – getting people to participate in building something greater than themselves.”
Dream Israel enables Jewish high school students to take the Israel trip of their dreams through fundraising for an approved project in Israel. Participants can earn up to $7,500 in grants towards a minimum four-week trip with one of the high school programs involved in the initiative.
The size of the grant depends on the amount they raise for their chosen project. If students raise a minimum of $2,500 for any program of four to eight weeks, they will receive grants totaling $3,750. For programs of eight weeks or longer, they have the option to raise a minimum of $5,000 for grants totaling $7,500. 
JNF-USA’s Boruchin Grant
Thanks to the very generous $100 million estate gift given to JNF-USA by the late John and Dora Boruchin of California in 2015, JNF-USA’s Boruchin Center, which funds the Dream Israel initiative, was created. The mission of the center is to strengthen the lifelong connection of all Americans, particularly young Jewish Americans, to the land and people of Israel through innovative and inspiring programming.
“When planning this initiative,” says Mike Lederman, chair of the Boruchin Center, “we determined that we would have to provide incentives for these teens to help them share the load with their parents and thus make the trip feasible for everyone. We wanted to make sure they had ‘skin in the game’ while learning about the Jewish value of tzedakah as part of their journey to Israel.
“We also want the trip to be as meaningful as possible for them and therefore, we decided a minimum four weeks – including four Shabbatot – would be needed to develop this deep connection to the land and its people,” he said.
A Partnership that Overcomes Boundaries 
Not only will the Dream Israel initiative reignite long-term Jewish teen travel to Israel, but it will also bring leading Zionist movements, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), together with JNF-USA to ensure its success.
Programs involved in the initiative including JNF-USA’ Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI), the URJ’s Heller High, the USCJ’s Ramah TRY, and Roots Israel, a joint project of JNF-USA and Alexander Muss High School in Israel.
“We went to the Reform and Conservative movements because they have their own high school educational programs similar to our Alexander Muss High School,” said Robinson. “Our aim is to enable teens to experience Israel while still in high school and we realized they have the same ideas as we do, so why compete? This way, we could reach more teens and offer them the choice of whether to go on a Reform, Conservative, or non-denominational program. We want them to have the connection to Israel even if it isn’t through our high school.
“If 97% of American Jewish teens are not going to Jewish day schools, we need to find ways to connect them to their Judaism and to Israel. This is one way we can succeed together,” he said.
According to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ president, the Reform Movement is committed to creating the spark that connects young people to the land and people of Israel. “A core part of that connection is impactful and educational long-term teen travel to Israel as well as building ties to Reform Movement institutions within the country. We are pleased to be one of the launch partners of JNF-USA’s Boruchin Center’s Dream Israel initiative, which will help achieve those goals for the next generation,” he said.
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the USCJ and the Rabbinical Assembly, said that the Conservative Movement is grateful to the JNF-USA’s Boruchin Center for its innovative approach to youth philanthropy. “We are all thrilled that more and more of our young people are interested in spending significant time in Israel on our programs.”
A Personal Story
Aiden Fladell (17) is a junior at The Weber School in Atlanta, Georgia. Her older sister, Rayna (19) is a freshman in college. She has been to Israel twice, once when she was nine for her older cousin’s Bar Mitzvah and again at 15 for her younger cousin's Bar Mitzvah. She speaks a little Hebrew, “enough to hold a simple conversation”.
Fladell heard about the Dream Israel initiative through an email her parents received. She signed up on Sunday, March 14 and by Thursday, March 18, had raised $1,815 from friends of her parents, friends of their friends, her friends, and other teens and teachers at school.
How did she do this? She emailed several of her parents' friends, connected with hers on social media and at school, and made posters, which she hung up all over her school.
Asked why she decided to sign up, she said, “Not only am I raising money for a great cause, but I am also saving my parents a lot of money for the trip.”
“I chose to go on the Roots Israel program, which is in July this year, because it is a great way to help Israeli society while also getting to see all of Israel. I chose the Disabilities and Special Needs project as my fundraising activity because I think it is crucial for those with disabilities and special needs to be able to be full and equal members of society.” 
Fladell is hoping to learn more about Israeli culture and “make new friends along the way”, but aside from her enthusiasm and excitement about the trip, she is very happy to have been able to give back to Israeli society. 
“The fundraising side of Dream Israel is important because it teaches us that when you do a good deed, good things come your way,” Fladell said. “I believe tzedakah is an important value in Judaism because it helps to fuel the Jewish people and keep the religion alive.” 
Lifelong Links to Israel
JNF-USA’s Boruchin Center looks forward to broadening and deepening its impact by nurturing lifelong connections to Israel among teens and thereby inspiring the next generation of community leaders and changemakers.
“Our goal is to put the land of Israel in the hearts of these teens, and as they go forward with their lives, their connectedness will be shared with their families and friends, developing a greater connection of the Jewish people through the land of Israel,” said Lederman.
“JNF-USA believes Dream Israel will foster a lifelong affinity for Israel. We hope that they'll have the land and its people in their hearts; they will have their own personal sense of a relationship with Israel and that will become important to them throughout their lives, whether in the boardroom of Jewish organizations or when they send their grandchildren off on their Dream Israel trip,” Lederman concluded.