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January 4th, 2008
Teen trips or birthright?
Parents choose from a large menu of trips to strengthen Jewish identity
By Andrea Waxman
of The Chronicle staff
If you are considering sending your teenage son or daughter to Israel during the coming summer, chances are you are already investigating the wide range of trips available.
Teens can travel to Israel on the JCC Maccabi Israel teen trip, Milwaukee’s community trip; through B’nai B’rith Youth Organization; or with the countless Jewish organizations that offer such tours or programs.
Considerations that come into play may include cost, the security situation, the length and timing of the trips, and the groups’ make-up and content.
Your interest in an Israel tour may also compete with your child’s other interests for the summer, such as working on athletic or performance skills.
‘Apples and oranges’
For many parents, the defining question is how an Israel experience will affect their child’s developing Jewish identity.
According to the United Jewish Communities’ 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study, a trip to Israel is one of the most positive experiences parents can provide to strengthen Jewish identity in their children. The others are a Jewish overnight camp and a Jewish day school education.
Some observers argue, however, that the availability of the birthright israel trip, which is free to all Jews age 18-26 who have not participated in an Israel program, provides a counter-incentive to trips for high school age students.
The consensus among several experts that The Chronicle spoke with seems to be the two kinds of trips offer very different experiences and that both are valuable for their target age groups.
Dr. Len Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, does not see the trips as competing, but rather as “apples and oranges.”
“I don’t like the comparison of birthright israel and high school programs. The issue for contemporary Jews is how do they learn about Judaism and how is it reflected in their practice. There are lots of ways; day schools and camps and Israel programs all offer valuable educational experiences for different ages and stages.
“I hate to see the discussion get reduced to which is better. All have their purpose and all are connected to the stage of development of an individual.”
In addition, Saxe does not see the cost of a teen trip to Israel as a major deterrent.
“The fact is that American Jews have tremendous resources. We are at the top of the heap. I’m not sure it’s as much an economic issue as some have made it out to be.
“Parents often spend lots of money keeping their teens involved in summer programs; they want them to be doing constructive things. So, it’s not that parents aren’t spending money; they are, especially because there are so many homes with two working parents.
“The competition is really with other, non-Jewish, opportunities.”
Mark Shapiro, associate executive director of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, said that participation in the JCC Maccabi Israel teen trip — Milwaukee’s community trip — has remained steady at about 30 teens for the last few years.
He acknowledges that at more than $5,000, the cost of the Israel summer program is a major factor for most parents. But if a family has saved for an Israel trip through the Passport to Israel program, the JCC’s goal has been to keep the balance of the trip cost to about that of a four-week residential camp session, Shapiro said.
He noted that the JCC trip gives teens the opportunity to live with Israeli families for a week during the Mifgash (Hebrew for “encounter”) part of the trip in Milwaukee’s Partnership 2000 region.
BBYO director Rachael Frydman who traveled to Israel two years ago as a staff person with the JCC Maccabi Israel trip from Milwaukee, said that both the high school and birthright israel trips are wonderful.
The earlier teen years are a good time, developmentally, for kids to go to Israel, Frydman said. Through her work at BBYO, she still sees many of the students who went on the Israel trip she staffed and she said she sees how much that trip still affects them.
Though college students can absorb more in 10 days than high school students could, the three to four-week summer trips for high school students offer a deeper experience, Frydman said.
BBYO offers Europe/Israel trips as well as Israel trips, and a number of options, including a three-week “Israel Journey,” an outdoor-focused “Trek Israel” trip or a “Camp P21” kibbutz-based trip for rising eighth- and ninth-graders, among others.
‘A crowning event’
Several parents who attended an information session on the 2008 JCC Maccabi Israel trip at the JCC on Dec. 12 spoke with The Chronicle and gave some insights into the decision-making process.
All said that the security situation in Israel was not a factor in their thinking about sending their teens on the trip, as they were not worried about it.
Michael Levey, a parent attending the session alone, is hoping to interest his high school age son in this summer trip to Israel because he feels it would strengthen his Jewish identity. But, he fears his son has other things he wants to pursue during the summer, he said.
Max Samson, whose wife Nancy Pinter came to the JCC session with their daughter Gina, said in a telephone interview that he is happy to take her away from the competing activities.
Interest in the trip initially came from her parents, who have been there 15 times. “But it was basically the good time she had at [the JCC’s Steve and Shari Sadek Family Camp Interlaken] last year and the friends she made there that have heightened [Gina’s] interest” in the Israel trip, Samson said.
Samson also said he and his wife aren’t worried about security. They were there in the summer of 2006 when the war with Lebanon broke out and they observed how the teen group from Milwaukee was moved away from the north and the fighting, he said.
Jeff Bern came to the information session with his daughter, Hannah, a tenth-grader at Nicolet High School. She has attended Camp Interlaken for about five years and sees the Israel trip as the natural next step.
“It feels almost like a culmination, her last opportunity to have that camp experience. It’s like a graduation — each year of camp is leading up to this.”
“The most important reason for sending her is that we talk about Israel, participate in fundraisers for Israel and learn about Israel. But it’s important to really experience it,” Bern said.
“I’ve never been and I would like for her to smell it, touch it, taste it. It is a crowning event.”