Though it has become somewhat of a cliché, the truth still remains that the only way to ensure our Jewish future is to engage and empower our Jewish youth and help them forge meaningful connections with Israel. From where I'm sitting, I believe this is impossible without actually bringing young people to Israel -- ground zero for Jewish thought, culture, and tradition -- to connect with the land, its people and Judaism on their own terms.
And I am by no means the only one.
Over the past 13 years, Birthright and Masa have seen much success in this arena, bringing young adults aged 18 to 30 to Israel on programs ranging from 10 days to a full year. Thus far, Birthright has sponsored a little over 300,000 Israel experiences. More than 17,000 of those participants have subsequently chosen to live in Israel. Additionally, Birthright participants are much more likely to marry Jewish spouses and identify with Israel and their Jewish heritage.
Clearly, they are doing something right. But the question becomes: Can we do even better?
I believe we can. We just have to think younger.
At the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, a member of the Lapid coalition for high school age programs in Israel, high school students from abroad take fully-accredited classes at an Israeli school for part of an academic year. Impressively, Alexander Muss has reported that 98 percent of their alumni have rated their program as one of the most influential educational and spiritual experiences of their lives. The statistics also show that participants of high school in Israel programming are more likely to put their Jewish identities first with everything they do.
As such, the benefits of high school-age Israel programming extend far beyond the individual. Following their time in Israel, teens return home inspired, seeking out previously unexplored connections with their Jewish heritage and taking on leadership roles to develop more Jewish programming for their communities.
And then there's the benefit of timing. When teens are groomed to value Israel and their Jewish identity from an earlier age, they have many more opportunities to make Jewish life choices. This can include everything from where they decide to attend college to who they choose to date and the extent to which they will support Israel in the future.
Indeed, one pivotal choice, like taking the strength of the campus Hillel house into account when selecting a college, can set a Jewish life in motion. And when Jewish students make these decisions together, they will find strength in numbers. They will stand up for Israel and the Jewish people as a stronger, better informed unit when they are confronted with anti-Israel rhetoric on campus and beyond the university walls, and they will actively seek out opportunities to take up the mantle of Jewish leadership.
It is not beyond our reach. It just hinges on an earlier, more impactful Israel experience.
The current trend among Jewish adolescents is to wait until after high school for their first Israel encounter. But we can do better.
If we can make high school Israel programs more accessible, if we can instill a love of Israel and Judaism in our youth as part and parcel of an education framework earlier on, the returns could be staggering.
We can do better. In the long run, we must do better. Our Jewish future depends on it.
Gideon Shavit is the co-founder and chairman of Lapid (www.lapidisrael.org), a cooperative initiative to raise awareness and significantly increase participation in quality high school age Israel programs.