Birthright for high school: A plan to save North American Jewry

We are losing, in very high numbers, the connection that Jewish children feel toward Israel; and this scary reality is mostly a result of their experiences on college campuses.

YOUTH ATTEND a Birthright-Israel event in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
YOUTH ATTEND a Birthright-Israel event in Jerusalem.
The relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry must be salvaged – and not just for Israel’s sake.
The vast majority of North American Jewry is heading toward a threat to its existence, but a new and different Birthright project, which I unveiled at the AJC Global Forum in Washington last month, just might save the 350-year-old community from extinction.
The founders and funders of Birthright deserve nothing but praise for the vision and positive revolution which they first initiated 17 years ago. However, the time has come for a significant change in thinking and in practice.
I have spent the past year traveling throughout North America discussing Israel with high school students, high school administrators, synagogue congregants and rabbis, college students and Federation leaders. The conclusion drawn from all these encounters is a simple one: We are losing, in very high numbers, the connection that Jewish children feel toward Israel; and this scary reality is mostly a result of their experiences on college campuses.
Two points before we turn toward the solution:
• Given the variety of forces manifest in today’s society – including social media, limited attention span, and a general trend toward globalization – a lack of connection and passion for Israel among Jewish youth invariably translates into a lack of any Jewish connection, and this absence of connecting to Israel threatens the future of Judaism in North America.
• Granted, Israel’s failure to accept non-Orthodox streams of Judaism contributes to that lack of connection to Israel – and certainly must be addressed by the state – but it is by no means the reason for that gap. The primary cause, in fact, is “the conflict.” Jewish children – yes, even those with a strong Zionistic education and upbringing – arrive on campus and are suddenly presented with a conundrum: either choose human rights and justice, or choose Israel. And most college-age students faced with that decision choose human rights and justice, thus abandoning their connection to Israel.
The current Birthright project brings most Jewish youth to Israel after university, but by this point it is usually too late to fully undo the damage which they experienced on campus. Moreover, who knows how many Jews have not even considered going on a Birthright trip to Israel as a result of that exposure in college?
So what should be done about this evolving catastrophic problem?
I propose a new and bold project: “High School Birthright,” whereby the leadership of North American Jewry directs its vast resources toward two initiatives:
• An educational trip for all Jewish youth in 11th grade for those enrolled in Jewish schools, and in the summer between 11th and 12th grades for those in public schools.
• Increasing the number and scope of post-high school gap-year programs in Israel, with an aggressive approach toward convincing Jewish youth to defer university for one year and attend one of those gap-year programs.
High School Birthright must be based on a well-constructed educational curriculum in which students develop a stronger connection to Israel and their Judaism as preparation for the college experience, while also learning about the Palestinian conflict and Israel’s struggles. They would not be indoctrinated with a right-wing or left-wing agenda, but rather, a clear understanding of the intricacies and complications of the situation.
Jewish students must learn firsthand about all aspects of Israeli society and the challenges it faces on a daily basis. They also need to see all the good that Israel brings to the world, and learn that regardless of political ideology and affiliation, Israel is not an apartheid state – that Israel in fact does stand for human rights and justice.
I have spent time with the administrators of two high schools – Gann Academy in Massachusetts and The Weber School in Georgia – that already include an educational trip of this kind as part of their curriculum, and this concept must spread to Jewish schools and communities throughout North America.
While I believe that High School Birthright alone will be a significant game-changer for Jewish youth as they head to college campuses, step two will yield even greater success.
On the heels of these trips in which they identify and connect with Israel, seniors must be presented with gap-year options in Israel geared toward their interests. Programs in sports, music, art, adventure, IDF service, volunteering and traditional study will enable Jewish children to further strengthen their passion for Israel and their Jewish identity.
High school students who defer their start of university studies for a year (something which every college offers) and spend a year in Israel at this critical age will be best prepared for the challenges of college as proud supporters of Israel and as proud Jews, and we will have essentially secured their future as dedicated, active and identifying Jews.
The Jewish community is blessed with the financial ability to implement both of these initiatives. Yes, Israel needs North American Jewry, but North American Jewry also needs Israel, and now is the time for leadership to recognize the pressing need for both sides and to take action. I plan to aggressively lobby the leaders of Jewish organizations across the board to accept this idea, and to work together to implement it.
The future of North American Jewry depends on it.
The writer served in the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party.