We must not let the Israel Tour system collapse

The informal education system which has served us so well is creaking

June 15, 2021 12:17

Some date it back to 1999, and the establishment of Birthright Israel. Certainly, that was the programme that firmly established the idea of the ‘Israel Experience’ as the key tool to help secure the Jewish identities of the next generation. Ten days of a group programme in Israel, at no charge, involving educational tours, outdoor activities and encounters with Israelis. That was the silver bullet.

Over 20 years on, three-quarters of a million young people have been through the programme, mainly from the US and Canada.

And if Brandeis University researchers are to be believed, it works.

They have been tracking two groups over time: Birthright participants and individuals who applied but ultimately didn’t go. And they have found that Birthright participants are more likely than the others to marry other Jews, raise their children as Jewish, feel a strong connection to Israel, have Jewish friends, attend Jewish religious services and celebrate Jewish holidays.

In truth, the origins of the Israel Experience go back much further. My own family story illustrates as much. My mother went on one in 1961. My stepfather went on a year programme in 1956, and still recalls the moment his madrich gathered his group together with the ominous words: “Chevreh, we are at war.” Machon l’Madrichei Chutz l’Aretz — the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad – opened its programme in 1946.

In those days, no one was conducting academic evaluations. But everyone knew they worked. A visit to Israel at that time was to enter a new world. Foreign travel itself was a novelty. Israel was profoundly vulnerable, yet full of ideological fortitude and youthful audacity. And after the Holocaust, it was difficult for any moral critique of Zionism to take hold. Israel simply stood on the right side of history.

But Israel has changed. The world has changed. And we’ve changed. Perhaps that explains why, in our own research on the impact of Israel summer tours, our findings don’t fully concur with those from Brandeis. Indeed, whilst it’s clear that the vast majority of participants return having had a wonderful time, the evidence for this single experience transforming the ways in which young people choose to live their Jewish lives in the long-term is decidedly slim. It is only when it is firmly embedded in a system of experiences — a strong Jewish upbringing, combined with multiple follow-up Jewish activities, particularly immersive, long-term, group programmes in Israel — that we start to see genuine statistical evidence of meaningful, lasting impact.

Yet the news that Israel summer tours have fallen foul of the pandemic and will not take place for the second year running should be a matter of deep concern. That’s because the Israel Experience here, unlike Birthright in the US, is firmly rooted within the youth movement system. Irrespective of the long-term effects it has on participants, it sits within a structure that encourages and empowers them to go on to become the youth and student leaders of the near future. It’s them who, in the years immediately following their summer tour, go on to voluntarily lead the Jewish summer camps, winter camps and weekend activities that serve countless younger children. So cancelling Israel tours doesn’t simply deny about a thousand 16-year-olds a holiday in Israel; it runs the risk of reducing the flow of future youth leaders to a trickle.

Youth movements and the UJIA are doing all in their power to minimise that risk, offering alternatives, preparing for future summer possibilities. And we can help: by encouraging the Israel tour cohort to participate in those new options this summer and by helping to invest in the organisations that are working so hard to provide them. Indeed, it’s critical that we do. Because make no mistake: the informal educational system, which has served the British Jewish community so well for so long, is creaking like never before.

June 15, 2021 12:17

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