In January, I read an article that has been bothering me until now.
In his Jan. 3 column, “Why Funders Need to Embrace Failure,” Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, described a project called The Israel Experience, which was launched in 1992 to bring tens of thousands of Jewish teens to Israel for eight-week summer programs, as “an acknowledged failure.”
What bothered me about the column is that it made no mention of the hugely successful array of high school-age programs that existed (and still exist) long before Charles Bronfman’s The Israel Experience was born. For well over 40 years, many of the 30-strong members of the Lapid Coalition for High School Age Programs in Israel, of which I am proud to be honorary chairman, have brought in excess of 500,000 high school-age teens to Israel on wonderful and diverse short-term Israel-experience programs from around the world. The Alexander Muss High School (AMHSI) in Israel, of which I am chairman and had the honor of naming after my late father, boasts 22,000 alumni alone, and is proudly celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
There are many like myself who have been involved in the field of quality Israel-experience programs for diaspora youth for a number of decades now. For the leaders of The Israel Experience to describe their project as a failure and assert that learning from their mistakes was what directly led to the success of Birthright Israel, the free 10-day trip to Israel for 18- to 26-year-olds, is grossly blurring the picture of what really has happened in this field.
Let’s set the record straight.
If the goal of funders is for diaspora youth to develop a relationship with Israel, and to identify with and as Jewish people, what is required is more than a 10-day Israel trip, as Birthright provides.
What drove the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency to get involved in this venture is a good question. What drove Bronfman and his cohort of supportive Jewish organizations to create The Israel Experience in 1992 in the first place would be an even better question. Why was there a need to reinvent the wheel when there were several other organizations already doing an excellent job with the high school-age programs to Israel?
This has been a recurring motif of major Jewish organizations for many years, and continues to be so. NIH (Not Invented Here) is a term used to describe the practice of corporate or institutional culture that avoids using existing products, services, skills or knowledge. It is a phenomenon common in Jewish life, with so many Jewish organizations doing the same work in the same fields, but each with its own branding.
Birthright and Masa (which provides longer-term stays in Israel for young Jewish adults) came about in part to boost tourism to Israel. Sadly, while philanthropists, Jewish organizations, federations, the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel are constantly on the lookout for the latest NIH initiatives into which to invest big sums of money, the organizations that are right on the mark with their objectives, missions and goals, and already cater to the target markets, plod along, with modest budgets, and remain blocked out of the limelight. Perhaps it is because they don’t have the kind of swollen budgets to compete with the new initiatives when it comes to flashy PR and marketing.
Why The Israel Experience failed, I cannot be sure. Perhaps it had to do with the unrealistic target of attracting 50,000 Jewish teens a year. In order for it to succeed, it would have surely had to take participants away from existing programs, which were obviously still popular and running strong.
It cannot be underestimated how shortsighted the decision was to fund (in the millions of dollars, mind you) only the post-high school-age programs, leaving high school-age programs in an undesirable light.
Overwhelmingly supportive research shows that the most acute period for critical identity formation in youth takes place during the high school-age teen years. The fact that Americans don’t know what to do when confronted with anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses is a huge pressure point for Israel funding and U.S.-based funding of the high school-age Israel programs.
There is a growing political reality in Israel that connection with Jewish diaspora high schoolers is essential. This reality has been brought to the surface by the hard work of Lapid and others.
The solution to achieving the goal of increasing participation in high school-age Israel programs to the more realistic figure of 20,000 a year — and therefore making a strong impact in the field of Israel education among our youth and countering the rampant anti-Semitism on campuses worldwide — is foreseeable in the very near future. Yet that can happen only through effective and collaborative partnerships. Ideally, this would involve the crucial institutional support and backing of all the individuals and groups involved in the enterprise, from the government of Israel to local Hebrew and day schools.
With every year that passes, we are losing Israel as the backbone to our Jewish identity among our youth. Fewer students are entering colleges prepared engage in Israel advocacy.
High school-age programs contribute enormously to Israel and to the fabric of Jewish identity, education and leadership in Jewish communities in the diaspora. With 80 percent of Lapid alumni marrying Jewish spouses, and with a second generation of children now participating in the same programs that brought their parents to Israel for the first time, what further support for Jewish continuity can there be?
We need to sit around the same table and set our priorities right.
The high school age-programs to Israel should be made a more affordable possibility for families in the diaspora in order to avoid the lack of Israel involvement among large numbers of our college students today. As a longtime champion of these programs, I implore our community to put them on the agenda and invest in our future. The alternative is further distancing between American Jews and Israel.
Stephen Muss is the chairman of the Alexander Muss High School (AMHSI) in Israel.