Sharansky’s ‘strategic plan’ isn’t good enough

The Jewish Agency should seriously reconsider how it embraces the entire landscape of educational travel to Israel en masse.

Natan Sharansky 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Natan Sharansky 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
In a recent article, Natan Sharansky wrote that the Jewish Agency’s “strategic plan is the best Jewish answer, the best Zionist answer and the best Israeli answer to the challenges facing Israel and the Jewish people,” (Jerusalem Post op-ed, February 27).
As co-chairman of Lapid, on behalf of our 30 international Jewish member organizations and the 12,000 high school-age teenagers who come from around the world on our Israel programs every year, who are consistently being sidelined from your vision of creating “a generation of Jewish young people who are more robustly involved in Jewish life,” I write to say that this is not good enough. It is not the best Jewish answer, nor the best Zionist answer – even if it may be the best Israeli answer to this serious challenge.
While millions of government and Jewish Agency dollars are being poured into bringing college-age students to Israel on wonderful programs through Taglit- Birthright and Masa, the high school-age programs, under the banner of Lapid, are being systematically ignored and neglected. As Sharansky knows by now, many of these programs have been running for well over 40 years. Over 500,000 teens have participated on high school-age programs to Israel, many of whom have returned to Israel on Masa programs. The logic is simple – give a boost to the high school-age programs and you’ll be boosting Masa. Lapid could even be considered within the framework of a “pre-Masa” program.
Around 15 percent to 20% of Lapid alumni have made aliya, and 80% marry Jewish. High school-age programs contribute enormously to Israel and to the fabric of Jewish identity, education and leadership in Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora. With second generations of children now participating on the same programs in which their parents first came to Israel, what further support for Jewish continuity can there be?
While the successes of Birthright and Masa continue to be widely touted, one needs to stop and ask why the accomplishments of the high school programs are being taken for granted? The numbers for high school program enrollment are in decline, while the waiting list for Birthright continues to grow. The overwhelming amount of supportive research and the resounding achievements of the high school programs are no secret; they have been known and brought to the attention of many at the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel for many years.
So, too, has the idea of the “universal voucher” been well known but less popularly touted: the concept of an equal opportunity granted for the “birth right” of all Jewish youth from around the world to visit Israel, from the age of 15, on any pre-approved program of their choice.
The writing is on the wall and all signs point to the educational value and importance of the high school-age trip to Israel, and that it should be made a more affordable possibility for families in the Diaspora. The Jewish world, the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel have a vested interest in increasing the numbers of Jewish youth coming to Israel during the high school age years. By doing so, significant numbers of Jewish students entering college campuses can be sufficiently equipped to deal with odious events such as Israel Apartheid Week.
With the current set up today, there is unfortunately a built-in incentive for delaying the first trip to Israel from the high school years to the college-age years (free, heavily subsidized and therefore very attractive). This is resulting in Israel connecting with Jewish Diaspora youth later in their lives and therefore losing many of them along the way. We are shifting the norm from longer, more in-depth programs during high school to shorter trips in early adulthood, as the message of exclusion to participants and parents of high school programs puts high school programs in an undesirable light.
The Jewish Agency should seriously reconsider how it embraces the entire landscape of educational travel to Israel en masse – high school-age students included – before it is too late. Only then will you have a real strategic plan with the best answer to the serious challenges facing Israel and the Jewish people.
The writer is co-chairman of Lapid – The Coalition for High School Age Programs to Israel.