Starting a revolution

‘When a kid comes to Israel at a young age, they form stronger feelings and deeper connections.’ – Hadas Brajtman

LAPID Mega Event, put on with program provider Israel Experience, brings thousands of high school students together to celebrate their 10-day trip in Israel.  (photo credit: KFIR BOLOTIN)
LAPID Mega Event, put on with program provider Israel Experience, brings thousands of high school students together to celebrate their 10-day trip in Israel.
(photo credit: KFIR BOLOTIN)
‘Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt, speech at the People’s Forum in Troy, New York (March 3, 1912) Perhaps attempting to realize the message disseminated in the quote above by US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, a coalition of competitors in the world of Jewish high-school programming in Israel has put its differences aside in order to come together and share ideas, develop programming, and lobby government officials and private philanthropists, to provide Jewish teens from abroad with meaningful pre-university Israel experiences.
Known as Lapid – The Coalition for High School Age Programs in Israel, the organization was founded in 2008 as a cooperative initiative between the diverse types of high-school Israel experiences (which are at least three weeks long), and serves as the umbrella for nearly 30 member organizations.
The heads of these bodies meet regularly as a cohesive unit to share best practices and strategize about how to target and advocate for this young demographic – students before they go to college – which they believe is crucial to safeguarding the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
Numbers indicate that around 12,000 Jewish high-school students take part in these types of programs each year.
Twenty-seven-year-old Tel Aviv resident Hadas Brajtman currently serves as Lapid’s director of communications and is a major force behind the organization’s activities. She strongly supports the notion that a key to Jewish continuity is getting students to Israel at an earlier age.
“The idea behind bringing highschool kids to Israel,” says Brajtman, “is that if they come earlier, when they are 15 or 16, we can greatly impact how they feel about Israel. Maybe they will return for a semester [in college], or attend Jewish summer camps. When a kid comes to Israel and gains exposure for lengthy periods of time at a young age, they form stronger feelings and deeper connections than at a later age.”
Brajtman cites a statistic released by Lapid, which indicates that 85 percent of Jewish students who participate in a recognized high school program in Israel marry within the religion. She says that figure is particularly relevant, in light of the Pew Research Center survey, which revealed an increasing rate of intermarriage and less identification with Judaism among young Jewish adults in the US.
Leah Garber is the vice president of the JCC Association, a Lapid member organization, and the director of its Israel center. Also a voluntary co-chairwoman at Lapid, Garber says that this past summer, over 250 high schoolers from all over North America were in Israel on JCC Association-affiliated programs.
She says that Lapid’s model of bringing the various organizations around the same table benefits all those involved. “The goal is to get more teens to Israel before college.
The kids will go with certain programs that fit their culture, so I don’t feel that we are really competing; you don’t feel that around the table. Rather, this is a forum for us to gain exposure to new programs and initiatives, and at the same time, together we can help push Lapid’s agenda forward.”
Garber says that moving the agenda forward requires “raising more awareness among decision-makers, both here and abroad, so that people understand the importance of supporting it [high school programs].” She envisions Lapid becoming a “third angle” joining Taglit-Birthright and the Jewish Agency’s Masa Israel, two programs geared towards college-age students and up, which have already secured significant funding.
However, she expresses frustration that while the other two programs have received funding from both government bodies and private philanthropists, Lapid – despite verbal commitments of support from the government – has yet to reap the benefits in the form of financial aid.
“Our only donors,” says Garber, “are the families themselves – the parents paying for their kids to come to Israel. If the government would allocate subsidies, the families would only have to match those amounts, and their costs will be lower. While at the JCC Association we see growth every year, we know families are struggling.
Our goal is to maintain not only affordable but meaningful trips.
I know that if our trips cost less, more kids would join.”
Garber also believes private philanthropists would be more inclined to donate towards Israel programs for high-school programming if they saw government financial backing.
Sarah Vanunu is the director of marketing, communications and public relations for another Lapid-affiliated organization, the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, a fully accredited pluralistic semester-abroad highschool program based in Hod Hasharon; AMHSI is under the auspices of the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund.
Vanunu, also one of the original Lapid founders, says that like Garber’s JCC Association, AMHSI’s goal is to “bring as many young people to Israel as possible.”
She also looks at her organization’s participation in Lapid as only positive, and doesn’t view the others around the table as competition. “We are stronger in numbers, we have a louder voice,” she says. “Whether they [the kids] choose one program over another, we don’t think that’s a loss. If a kid went on a program with Young Judaea [Hadassah] or NFTY [a program affiliated with the Reform Movement], it’s a plus for the Jewish world that they are here.”
Vanunu says that Lapid did in fact successfully bring to light the issue of getting the government involved in helping bring high-school-aged teens to Israel, citing a Immigration and Diaspora Affairs Knesset committee meeting held on the issue last year. But she says that “while commitments were made in terms of funding and finding support, because of the elections [held shortly after] and change in government, it never panned out.”
Without that funding, both Garber and Vanunu separately claim, many parents are opting to forgo giving their children an Israel high-school experience, instead waiting until they are older and eligible to receive subsidized trips from either Taglit-Birthright or Masa Israel.
Nevertheless, Garber says that Lapid strongly believes in cooperation with both organizations. In fact, she says, “we [Lapid] are the best Masa feeders. Teens that experience impactful Israel trips will return again on Masa. We are the best marketers for Masa.”
She does hope that one day Taglit- Birthright will remove its barrier, which currently permits only young adults who have never been on an organized trip to Israel to participate.
She says that “if kids know they could go on a high-school trip, and then come back – assuming Birthright stays free – then it could be a win-win for all.”
In addition to serving as a voice for high-school programs in Israel, Brajtman talks about the benefits for the students who are in Israel on Lapid-affiliated programs. She says the students are given a “Lapid student card” while in Israel, offering them discounts at restaurants and entrance fees at other cultural events throughout the year.
In addition, Lapid hosts an annual “Lapid Mega-Event” concert in collaboration with the Israel Experience, a local tour-group facilitator, to bring together thousands of high-school students to “celebrate life, Israel and togetherness,” says Brajtman. This past July 5,000 high schoolers gathered for the event held in Jerusalem’s Sultan’s Pool. “For some, this event is their first exposure to Lapid, and to so many other kids who are like them. It shows them – these kids from all over – that they are not alone.”
Matan, a 16-year-old high-school junior originally from Switzerland, is studying at the Walworth Barbour American International School in Even Yehuda. He arrived in Israel for a semester at AMHSI last year, and fell in love with the country. After a second semester at AMHSI, he decided to finish his high-school education in Israel, and now plans on making aliya and joining the army.
He says that before his experience at AMHSI, “I was lost. I wasn’t sure of myself, and didn’t know what I wanted to do, or where I belong. But Muss [AMHSI] really hit home because of my personality, and I discovered that Israel is really the place for me.”
He adds that the program “connected me with Israel, and showed me more than the simple tourist sites that you would see on a short program. I got to connect with real people, and see the real Israel. I developed a real sense of belonging and a connection. It really hit home how special this place was, so I decided to stay.”
Brajtman views Matan as a great example of a Lapid success story. As such, she says, “the word ‘Lapid’ represents ‘torch.’ This is the torch to be carried by the next generation of Jews.”