With the advent of Birthright, teen summer programs have seen a massive decline in enrollment as parents ask; ‘why should we spend money on a teen program in Israel, when our children can wait until they are eighteen and go for free?’
As much as I am a huge fan of the Birthright project, and indeed have been designing and guiding Birthright groups since the programs’ inception fourteen years ago, one cannot compare a quality two-month educational program with the ten-day-quick-fix-connection-building experience of a Birthright trip.
Birthright is not a replacement for a high quality Israel education program in Israel, such as that offered at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) (http://www.amhsi.org). The AMHSI program consists of an eight-week curriculum for public school educated students from tenth to twelfth grade, as well as various tailor-made programs for Jewish day schools in the United States and Australia. Students at AMHSI use Israel as a living classroom and in the process gain a strong understanding of the concept Yonatan Netanyahu referred to in one of his letters as the Jewish people not just being, “the people of the Book” but also, “the people of the Land.” It is crucially important to focus on high school age participants because, as the influential study, “Being a Jewish Teenager in America: Trying to Make It,” by Kadushin, Kelner and Saxe (2000) claims:
With the possible exception of the family, no single institution does more to shape the lives of American adolescents than schools.
Tuvia teaching an AMHSI class
I had the privilege to teach at AMHSI for many years. Recently, I was extremely excited to learn that three students from one of the classes I taught had made, or were making, Aliya through Garin Tzabar and going to volunteer to serve in the IDF. When I asked them if their two months at AMHSI had affected their decision, the answers I received deserve to be read in their own words:
On AMHSI we learned both about our own Jewish identity and 4000 years of our connection to the land of Israel through a Zionist lens. The curriculum started at the beginning of our history in our land, with our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. We then followed each link in the chain of our Jewish history, until we ultimately discovered how we too are connected. It was a feeling of being part of something bigger. For the first time, I really felt alive. I felt like part of something much bigger, a link in that chain of our history. I feel that being a soldier will mean that I am standing up for what I believe in, and defending Israel. These are the feelings, conceived on AMHSI and further nurtured on my gap year in Israel, that motivated my plans to make Aliya and join the army.” – Anne
“I grew up with an awareness of Judaism and a strong connection to Israel, but AMHSI was the first time I really synthesized emotions and knowledge into the strong Jewish identity I have today. By learning about the history of my people in the places it unfolded, I saw and felt for myself what it means to be a Zionist. I learned about the Jewish heroes who built and protected the land and realised that I too wanted to be a part of this history—a link on the long chain of Jewish continuity—rather than just sit aside and watch it unfold.” – Ari
“Alexander Muss High School in Israel made me think about the life I wanted in the future. It forced me to think beyond schooling and friends, but to really think about my goals and priorities. Through learning in the classroom and going out to see the places where everything we learned about happened, it made me realize that there are people that have given so much of themselves without expecting anything in return, so that we today can live in a State that is safe and doing well. I connected to the history in the country through these trips and wanted to do my part in a country that has taught me so much.” – Gabrielle
Lapid, a coalition founded in 2008 to strengthen the community of high-school study and travel programs in Israel and to lobby for recognition and financial and institutional support on par with comparable programs for university-age participants, on their website (http://www.lapidisrael.org) claims that engaging teenage participants at a unique time in their lives on a quality educational journey through Israel will point the way to a more meaningful future for them. This in turn will help sustain, “a strong relationship with the Jewish State by facilitating a meaningful Israel educational experience which is vital for fostering a strong Jewish identity.”
Based on the sentiments of the three AMHSI alumni quoted above, and the tens of thousands of alumni of teen programs in Israel, I would say that there is a strong case for parents to seriously consider the benefits of a quality teen program not only for their children, but for the future of the Jewish people as a whole.
“Ascending Masada.” (C) Tuvia Book, 2013