Israel experience programs are a game changer

The Jewish people won’t solve all our major challenges in one stroke – we never have.

Jewish Agency meeting in Buenos Aires 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish Agency meeting in Buenos Aires 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In Brenda Katten’s article on this page “Is it just about money? (The Jerusalem Post, January 4, 2012) she suggests that Jewish Federation of North America’s recent change in overseas allocation, to be reflected in the new Global Planning Table (GPT), is a “clarion call for the Jewish Agency and other major Zionist organizations based in Israel to take on what the Jewish Agency’s Jerusalem Program originally set out to do: namely give the Diaspora the tools to fight both assimilation and the anti-Israel hysteria taking hold....” She focuses on the college campus as one of the main battlefields where Israel is not only losing support of the Jewish students but finding that some of them are being attracted to our enemies.
While one can debate the reasons for what has been a gradual move toward the current GPT framework, the premise that today’s major challenge facing the Jewish people is one of identity and securing the Jewish future is at the core of the Jewish Agency’s new major investment in Israel experiences.
We couldn’t agree more with the author that today’s imperative is to ensure that the global Jewish community comes together, in a serious, collective effort, to tackle the greatest challenge of our time. We are losing Jews at a dangerous pace, not only through assimilation but through a cognizant distancing from things Jewish and from Israel. It is true that many young people today see Israel as an embarrassment and their own peoplehood as a burden. This dangerous trend has to be stopped.
As it has done throughout its history, the Jewish Agency has confronted the most urgent challenges of the Jewish people, first establishing the state, then settling the land, building the country’s infrastructure and bringing in millions of immigrants. Today, that challenge is to ensure the symbiotic and close relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
IT IS not only in Israel’s interest that this connection remains strong; the global Jewish community benefits as well. Multiple studies have clearly demonstrated that a connection to Israel generates greater feelings of Jewish self-esteem and community. Those who participate in an Israel experience such as Birthright and the Jewish Agency’s Masa Israel Journey are overwhelmingly more likely to remain active in Jewish life, and become the future leaders of the Jewish community.
Consider the following: A recent two-year study by Jack Wertheimer, commissioned by the Avi Chai Foundation, showed that about 56 percent of younger Jewish leaders (under 40) of all types have participated in long-term programs (generally Masa). When one looks at the research conducted in the 2010 study: “Journeys to Israel: The Impact of Longer-term Programs upon Jewish Engagement and Israel Attachment” by Steven M. Cohen and Ezra Koplowitz, the impact of participating in long-term Israel experiences is significant.
It is not hard to reach the conclusion that if so many young people have the Israel experience that so dramatically impacts their lives – some 10,500 young people are in Israel each year for extended periods on Masa programs – then we are witnessing a major shift in the longterm Jewish identity equation.
For example, when asked in the “Journeys to Israel” study if being Jewish is important, the affirmative responders went from 54% after one short-term program like Birthright to 79% after a short-term program and a Masa program.
Asked if it is important to marry someone Jewish, the numbers rose from 31% to 66%. When asked if considering a Jewish career the numbers went from 12% to 45% and when asked if they had recently volunteered with a Jewish organization, the numbers rose from 28% to 64%. By any standard, we’re looking at a game changer.
Bringing young Jews to Israel for meaningful encounters is at the core of the Jewish Agency’s activities today. These young people will become our future community leaders. Many will make aliya. But bringing Israel to Jews around the world is the second side of the same coin.
With thousands of young Israeli shlichim (emissaries) sent to communities around the world, the authentic Israel is delivered straight to the heart of Diaspora communities. One such program, in cooperation with Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is the Jewish Agency’s Israel Fellows to Hillel program.
Fifty young Israelis are posted at college campuses across North America to strengthen the standing of Israel on university campuses, bringing their firsthand perspectives on Israel directly to tens of thousands of Jewish students each year, through peer relationships, organized trips, cultural events, education and advocacy.
They serve as Israel’s unofficial peer ambassadors on campus and in the local community, providing opportunities for students to discuss and experience every aspect of Israeli life, organizing thoughtful advocacy initiatives when Israel is getting a raw deal in its public perception, bridging the gap between Israel – fact and fiction – and inspiring students to forge enduring commitments to Israel.
The Jewish people won’t solve all our major challenges in one stroke – we never have. This is why it’s critically important today to build a cadre of thousands of young leaders who will do our work, in keeping our people alive and flourishing, from generation to generation. That’s our agenda. We are committed to building this cadre, and we know from independent studies that we’re already succeeding.

The writer is director of communications in North America for the Jewish Agency for Israel. Currently on shlichut in New York, he made aliya in 1988 and is a Lt.-Col. in the IDF reserves.