The rise in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities in academia begs for an effective strategy to address this new challenge. As Jewish teens arrive on college campuses, they are thrust into a vulnerable position: unprepared, uninformed, and unable to cope with hostility, antagonism and even worse against Israel and Jews. Furthermore, the problems in academia are making their way into our high schools.
Birthright Israel is one of the Jewish world’s greatest innovations. It superbly accomplishes what it set out to do. However, when Birthright Israel started in 1999, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activities on campus were not the critical issue they have become. Consequently, teaching Jewish teens Israel advocacy skills and complex approaches to Israel before they go to college is a new, urgent need. The extension of the Birthright Israel program by lowering the age of eligibility to 16 is the best and possibly only solution for battling the growing crisis quickly and effectively.
The effectiveness of the teen Israel experience has been demonstrated by numerous studies. Most recently, Professor Steven M. Cohen and Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz conducted a study of alumni, ages 18 to 39, of the Lappin Foundation’s Youth to Israel Adventure (Y2I), a fully subsidized Israel experience for 16- and 17-year-old Jewish teens. Recently released findings of the commissioned study found that 72 percent of the Y2I alumni in the 18-to-39 age group have married fellow Jews, and of those who are parents, 90 percent of them are raising their children Jewish.
Pertinence of the study is that Birthright Israel’s effectiveness will not be diluted by lowering the age of eligibility to 16, and it will indeed provide an opportunity for Birthright Israel to significantly improve by expanding its reach and its role in addressing one of the Jewish world’s growing crises.
A teen Israel experience before college provides the background, and ample time — up to two years, for teens to learn how to advocate for Israel, something that Birthright Israel is not able to do, given that Birthright Israel trips take place after a young adult’s college experience has started. As has been Y2I’s practice for years, local communities can develop programs that will train and equip Jewish teens with skills and techniques necessary to contend with anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activities and sentiments before, during and after their college years but only if teens have been fortified with an Israel experience. The firsthand experience of having been in Israel, understanding Israel’s role in the world and marveling at Israel’s contributions to every field of human endeavor resonates with teens, making not only Israel advocacy effective, but also Jewish life more readily meaningful.
Key to attracting Jewish teens en masse to an Israel experience is the adoption of the justly admired Birthright Israel model: a free 10-day trip. Birthright Israel is the only viable entity to meet this new challenge. If Birthright Israel agrees to lower its age of eligibility to 16 and the government of Israel helps to fund it as part of its new initiative, the Jewish world will be well on its way to meeting this new, urgent need.
Robert Israel Lappin is president of the Lappin Foundation.