RootOne 2022: What we’ve learned and what comes next
RootOne is more than just getting Jewish teens to Israel. It is about creating a lifelong connection to Jewish life and to Israel that is sparked by a transformative set of Israel experiences. It’s indicative of a new understanding of teens today and their thirst to get real meaning, connections and learning out of any experience in which they engage.
By Simon Amiel
When we announced the launch of RootOne at The Jewish Education Project in September 2020, skepticism abounded about whether teen trips to Israel would actually depart the following summer. Thanks to the incredible work of The Marcus Foundation, The Jewish Agency for Israel, over 20 youth serving organizations (YSOs) and Jewish residential camps, 4,000 [fully vaccinated] teens experienced meaningful and educational trips to Israel in the summer of 2021. For the teens who participated, incredible friendships were formed, Jewish identities were strengthened and long-lasting connections to Israel began. But in this specific summer, the trips offered something even greater.
The Israel trips provided a much-needed respite, a chance to connect in-person with other people and with an experience — Israel — that is meant to be touched, smelled, tasted and questioned. RootOne affiliated trips respect the sophistication of teens and provide them every opportunity to engage with what they see around them, from the simple to the complex, as Israel comes alive.
Emily Rubinstein, who traveled with RootOne through Camp Yavneh’s Na’aleh summer program, reflected, “I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to travel around Israel with my best friends, while simultaneously getting to listen to diverse, first-person experiences of people who call Israel their home. The places we have traveled so far, and the activities we have done, have given me the outlet to think deeply about my Judaism and the significance Israel holds in my life as a Jewish American teen.”
The magic of RootOne goes beyond the trip itself. When teens return from their trips, RootOne dives into the post-trip engagement efforts we know are so important. Building upon the hours of pre-trip learning — and the trips themselves that are led by expertly trained educators and guides — the post-trip engagement is our chance to cement a pipeline to long-lasting Jewish involvement. We help teens find the Israel and Jewish opportunities that are most meaningful — and most relevant — to them as they age into young adulthood. With this approach, RootOne offers teens robust and varied educational experiences to tap into their interests and their thirst for knowledge.
Savannah Garst of Clemson, South Carolina grew up where “it was weird” to be Jewish. She spent many years hiding her “Jewish-ness.” So, in Israel, she found it life-changing to be in a place where it’s not weird to be Jewish — where most businesses are closed on shabbat, kosher food abounds and the Hebrew language is spoken. Since coming back, she’s been able to talk to others about her Jewish identity more openly. She’s unafraid to post on social media or engage in conversations with her peers about Israel and Judaism. She’s also joined her local NFTY board and gotten more involved in her Judaism. She feels so happy where she is in her life, as she’s no longer trying to hide or be something she’s not anymore.
Next up, she plans to do Birthright in college, maybe an internship in Israel after that. She’s in the process of college applications now and a school with a strong Jewish presence is a top priority for her.
RootOne can’t do this work alone. The iCenter for Israel Education is RootOne’s educational partner. Rosov Consulting evaluates the initiative and its impact. The Jewish Agency for Israel is a key partner in navigating Israel’s travel policies and finding valuable educational resources. And organizations like Hillel, MASA and others are playing vital roles so that teens continue Jewish engagement on campus and beyond. As the pandemic unfortunately continues, teens yearn for community. They are filled with questions about the world around them. And through all of this, their Jewish identity and relationship with Israel is forming right before our eyes; Jewish community can provide value and comfort to them, if we foster it to do so.
Joshua Santoro from Long Island started out his trip with a “skeptical” outlook. But beginning in Tzfat, where the group was free to explore the city’s Kabbalistic origins on their own, to the Cave of the Patriarchs and Yad Vashem, Josh began to understand and deepen his personal connection to his faith and Jewish history with each stop along the way. He built a relationship with his counselors, who provided context and made the experience that much more meaningful. He said he got goosebumps when he visited the Western Wall — a far cry from the disbelieving person he was when he stepped off the plane.
While there are many lessons we are unpacking from last summer’s trips, a key one was affirming the power of personal connections. So, as part of the meaningful learning sessions happening now in preparation for summer 2022, RootOne participants will be able to foster meaningful peer relationships with Israelis their age. With the help of the Israeli organization ENTER Peoplehood, RootOne is matching 1,500 (U.S. or North American) teens with 1,500 Israeli high school students to meet a total of five times virtually (Israeli teens who participate receive a 25% bonus to their English bagrut, or matriculation, test). Our goal next summer is that 20% of the Israelis who participate in the One2One program (which is what we’re calling it) will be integrated into the RootOne buses with the teens they are matched with. This is part of our strategy to strengthen the connection that American teens have to the land, state, and people of Israel. Additionally, we are looking forward to dramatically increasing the sheer number of teens travelling this summer. While last summer we proudly sent 4,000 teens, RootOne has already allocated 7,000 travel vouchers to 42 trip providers for Summer 2022.
RootOne is more than just getting Jewish teens to Israel. It is about creating a lifelong connection to Jewish life and to Israel that is sparked by a transformative set of Israel experiences. It’s indicative of a new understanding of teens today, the world in which they live, and their thirst to get real meaning, connections and learning out of any experience in which they engage.
Simon Amiel is executive director of RootOne at The Jewish Education Project. For more information visit RootOne.org
originally published in eJewish Philanthropy