Running their course?

Against the odds, many post-high-school year programs in Israel have never been more popular.

young judea year course  (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
young judea year course
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
pending a post-high-school year in Israel is a rite of passage for certain groups of ideologically committed young adults living in the Diaspora. Yet, as recent experience with the intifada has shown, many teenagers - often at the urging of their parents - will pass on this opportunity during times of increased conflict in the Middle East. Barely a month after the war in Lebanon, it would stand to reason that Israel's long-term one-year study and experience programs might be in trouble. But in fact, the exact opposite is true. Many programs, such as Hadassah's Young Judea Year Course program, are welcoming record numbers of participants this year and boasting of some of their largest groups in history. Just two years ago, the Jewish Agency estimated the number of post-high-school young adults residing in the country on organized one-year trips to be at around 4,000. Last year, that number jumped to 7,000, and this month 9,000 young adults are expected to arrive in Israel to start year-long programs - and that includes the 10 percent cancellation rate programs incurred from the fallout of the war. The reasons behind this growth are not arbitrary. They speak to the strength of the programs themselves, improved public relations and marketing campaigns and the relative stunning success of short-term programs like birthright israel (according to the Jewish Agency figures, 70% of long-term program participants have been to Israel previously through shorter organized tours). Most notable, however, is the development of a partnership organization between the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government to invest serious financial resources in supporting long-term post-high-school programming. The partnership, known as Masa, or "Israel Journey," was the vision of former prime minister Ariel Sharon and is now entering its third year, with a budget ranging between $40 million and $45m. Operating as an umbrella organization for almost all of Israel's long-term programs, Masa currently has 114 program groups under its auspices and offers support in terms of marketing, program development and scholarship funding. "Certain feelings about Israel's maturity and Zionism led the government to initiate this partnership," said Elan Ezrachi, Masa's executive director. "It's part of the idea that Israel is committed to strengthening world Jewry." Deliberately designed to grow as the number of people coming on long-term programs increases, the organization's budget is set to reach $100 million when it is operating at its full capacity of 20,000 participants a year. Even though Masa dedicates 85% of its funding towards scholarship moneys, it invested over $1m. in a worldwide marketing campaign last year that included radio and television commercials in the United States, Latin America and France and a subway campaign in Moscow and Kiev, said Lior Shmueli, Masa's director of marketing and development. In addition, the organization distributed over 100,000 copies of its catalog detailing the various programs. Its worldwide efforts have yielded strong results, with nearly 50% of this year's participants coming from the US and the other 50% from countries all over the world, including Latin America, Europe, Russia, Australia and South Africa. The types of long-term programs available to post-high-school students vary tremendously in their scope and focus, ranging from religiously affiliated curricula and customized ideological programs to secular university study. According to Masa's statistics, 30%-40% of participants this year will attend yeshiva or seminary programs; 25%-30% will partake in "gap year" programs (like Young Judea's Year Course in Israel or United Synagogue's Nativ); 30% will attend a university affiliated program and 15%-20% will take advantage of various post-college programs. Many of the programs, like Hadassah's Young Judea Year Course in Israel, have been building their reputation for years. "These movements also do a very good job of talking to the parents. They have a strong reputation, and they know what they are doing," Ezrachi acknowledged. This past week, Young Judea welcomed a record 440 participants for its Year Course hailing from both the United States and England. With the backing of a large organization like Hadassah, Young Judea is able to put significant funding into marketing and recruiting efforts on its own. The organization spent $75,000 on these efforts in the US last year, in addition to employing four full-time recruiters, said Katie Winsberg, coordinator of public relations and marketing for Young Judea. Young Judea, which received only 15 cancellations as a result of the war, offers its participants a three-pronged program. In rotating order, group members spend three months in Jerusalem in an intensive academic program accredited through the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, for which they can receive up to a year's worth of college credit. Three additional months of their time is dedicated to community volunteering in Bat Yam and Holon and another three months is spent in a program of their choice, including the IDF's Marva program, Magen David Adom, the safari zoo or on a kibbutz. Both Ezrachi and Winsberg concurred that many participants in long-term programs already have a strong ideological bent towards Israel and are unlikely to be deterred from coming by anything but the most severe security issues. "The post-high-school phenomenon is still the domain of ideological groups, whether they are on the Left or the Right," Ezrachi said. Winsberg noted that many participants in Young Judea's Year Course have had friends or family members affiliated with the organization in the past, putting them more at ease about coming to Israel during crisis periods. "Our program is really one of independence and individuality - it speaks to your average 18-year-old who is looking to do something different," she said. The average 18-year-old's parents, however, do not always share the same adventurous spirit as their teens, especially when it comes to their children's security. Both Masa and Young Judea go to great lengths to proactively reassure parents of their security procedures through conference calls and Internet announcements. Parents said they appreciate the regular communication and the assurances that group organizers are doing their best to guarantee the highest level of security possible, even though Ezrachi said they are careful never to promise an infallible guarantee of a child's safety. Young Judea participants can expect to receive cell phones with built-in GPS locators that can track their location within minutes. "We only use it in case of emergencies," Winsberg said, "but when there is an incident, as soon as we know all of the kids are safe, we send out an e-mail to the parents immediately informing them of the situation." Their efforts have paid off. Adam Clemons arrived in Israel this past week from Potomac, Maryland for Young Judea's Year Course. Although his parents were nervous, they never asked him not to go. "Hadassah's Year Course communications put them enough at ease that they never pushed the issue," he explained. Not all programs are as fortunate, however, Ezrachi said. In particular, university programs are the most vulnerable, as they tend to service students on an individual level rather than through group programming. Not only can the students' home universities forbid their students to come, but these students are also in positions to switch their plans on short notice without creating problems of what to do back at home. Despite the loss of some of these students, Masa has already initiated a program in response to the war that it expects will recoup the 1,000 cancellations long-term programs incurred this year. Called Go-Galil, the program will bring volunteers from the Diaspora to the North to volunteer in schools, community centers and with small businesses. "It is something directly related to the new agenda in Israel," Ezrachi said.