In two months, approximately 60,000 Jewish freshmen will start the next stage of their lives on North American college campuses. Two types of offers will beckon them.
If Hillel and Chabad are doing their jobs well, someone will say, “Hey, Joe, you want to check out Shabbat dinner this week?” And, if numerous on-campus critics of Israeli policy are active, students will hear things like, “Hey, Sally, I think we should look into that group protesting Israeli human rights violations.”
For those with some combination of day school, congregational school, Jewish summer camp and youth group, the Shabbat dinner invitation will be familiar, even appealing. But, how will they respond when confronted with charges of Israeli “brutality,” “colonialism” and “apartheid?” Recent years have shown us that most new college students are ill-equipped to deal with this latter set of challenges.
Moreover, as is typical of their age, many are dwelling in the trough of Jewish commitment. Jewish “teenage-hood” begins on a high note with two-thirds of American Jews having celebrated becoming bar or bat mitzvah. But by 12th grade, few teens have any formal connections to Jewish life, with the greatest drop-offs occurring immediately after stepping down from the bima on their bar or bat mitzvah day.
To be sure, a minority does engage in Jewish campus life. Significantly, between ages 18 and 26, many eventually go on Birthright, the free Israel trip, albeit often after graduation. The experience not only elevates their chances of marrying Jews, but also produces dramatic increases in many Jewish behaviors, attachment to their Jewish communities, Jewish organizations and Israel, as well as return trips to Israel.
If an educationally guided trip to Israel with one’s peers produces such dramatic effects starting at age 18, shouldn’t we see similar effects for high school students? In fact, we do. Two recent, separately conducted, studies testify to the long-range impact of such trips.
Alumni from The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey of NCSY and the Youth To Israel Adventure of the Robert I. Lappin Foundation report higher levels of Jewish engagement as young adults than do their age peers from comparison samples. Controlling for parental background and Jewish education, Israel trip alumni report higher levels of Jewish commitment, Jewish belonging and ritual observance years later than do others with similar Jewish upbringings (that is, compared to similar cohorts among Birthright applicants, those from the Pew Research Center study and the Jewish Community Study of New York).
One reason for these effects is that the Israel trip is a time-limited experience. Moreover, teens don’t go to Israel in a vacuum. Their participation comes about as a direct result of other Jewish activities, forming a continuum of experiences.
And the effects are reciprocal. Teens who go to Israel engage their parents and other family members in their decision and experiences. The trips generate numerous conversations in the home, deepening their impact and extending it to parents, siblings and beyond.
Social experiences at this critical time in someone’s life are intensified with Israel as the backdrop. Having an existential conversation at an ancient Jewish site, playing on Tel Aviv’s beaches, crying together at the military cemetery at Mount Herzl and, yes, falling in love in a Bedouin tent are all memories that remain with teens throughout their lives.
Another distinctive advantage is that teen Israel experiences are typically longer than the Birthright trip, which is just 10 days. Longer, more comprehensive teen Israel experiences — generally four to six weeks — ensure that participants deal with many more issues in significant and deeper ways. They encounter the land of Israel, Israeli culture, the Hebrew language and different types of Israelis. The best teen Israel experiences incorporate significant encounters with contemporary Jewish Israeli youth. Excellent teen experiences also encounter the “other” — including Israeli Arabs, Bedouin, charedim, secularists, Jewish settlers, human rights activists and Palestinians. Teen experiences in Israel also lead many people to choose a longer Israel experience later in life — be it gap-year programs, junior year abroad or other offerings like MASA, which offers yearlong trips.
While not all teens who experience Israel will, or ought to, become Israel advocates on campus, all such participants will have begun to deal with Israeli politics and society in a safe and empowering environment well before their arrival on the turbulent campus.
If thousands of today’s Jewish students had experienced Israel before coming to campus, college life would be very different. With Israel travel in teen years, more will check out Shabbat meals, Jewish studies and other campus-based Jewish growth experiences. They’ll also know how to begin to respond to the numerous challenges to Israel engagement they’ll experience. The teen Israel experience can bend the trend lines, dramatically increasing the numbers involved in Jewish life on campus and beyond.
The time to provide low-cost teen trips to Israel is now. The time to invest in more types of quality teen Israel trips, and advocating that every Jewish teenager celebrates this milestone event in their life journey has arrived. As a community, we haven’t done all that well preparing our children for freshmen orientation this fall. Let’s do better for their siblings in 2016.
Dr. David Bryfman is the chief innovation officer at The Jewish Education Project. Steven M. Cohen is research professor, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.