Want to strengthen your local teen Jewish community? Send your 8th graders to Israel!

May 10, 2021 | News

Too many Jewish teens do not value being Jewish. While there are many questions to be asked about this reality, the most pressing is: How do we get young Jews to opt into Jewish life when societal forces encourage individualism and cynicism towards traditional communal organizations?

We know that teens who engage with Jewish teen organizations, Jewish camps and Israel experiences are far more inclined to have a strong Jewish self-identity, care about Jewish community and family, espouse Jewish values and positively relate to Israel. Though the Jewish community has wisely invested in these opportunities, the overall numbers of Jewish high schoolers who take advantage of them remains stubbornly low when compared to the potential pool of teens from Jewishly identifying families. This is especially true for teens whose families have chosen public school educations for their children; by the time they enter 9th grade, they have often opted out of Jewish life.

In Chicago, there has been a developing partnership between the federation and the community’s congregations, camps, and youth-serving organizations to address these obstacles to increasing high schoolers’ involvement and interest in Jewish communal life. A lynchpin of this partnership involves a program currently unique to the Chicago community, a subsidized trip to Israel for 8th grade public school students called IsraelNow. The experience facilitates transition of 8th graders into active and engaged Jewish high schoolers who are engaged and invested in their local Jewish community and Israel. The trip, designed especially for the developmental needs of 8th graders and rooted in sound pedagogic practices of pluralistic Israel education, is an investment that Chicago has found pays big dividends.

A 2020 study of current high school alumni of the IsraelNow program by Rosov Consulting found that having participated in an IsraelNow trip during their 8th grade year:

• fosters an attachment and relationship to Israel, with 100% of respondents expressing the desire to return to Israel and one in five having already returned through an organized high school trip. Fully 75% of alumni feel comfortable talking about Israel with peers.

• increases engagement in Jewish life during high school, with 80% of respondents saying they feel connected to the Jewish community both locally and beyond. Some 65% currently are participating in some Jewish activity on at least a monthly basis.

• results in greater social capital through stronger Jewish social networks, with 90% of respondents reporting they appreciate diversity as part of their Jewish identity. Indeed, 71% have Jewish friends with backgrounds different from their own.

The most significant indicator of the investment value of the program: These results were the same regardless of the grade of the respondent. In other words, the impact of the trip was as strong and lasting on the 12th grade alumnus as the 9th grade alumnus.

How could such an enormous impact result from an eight-day experience? Timing matters. IsraelNow participants return at the exact time they are transitioning from middle school to high school, when friends and activities reset. Active follow up is critical to engaging them post-trip, to stay on their radar as their interests shift, and that has to be as much of a priority as the trip experience itself.

Chicago has learned how to further leverage this investment by also supporting a robust teen professional organization network, that includes a community focused teen initiative seeded here by the Jim Joseph Foundation, for immediate follow up with trip participants upon their return home. A key to the successful outcomes of the IsraelNow experience is having an organized and cooperative teen support structure that works towards common communal goals of Jewish engagement. The trip is staffed by youth-serving professionals and educators from across the Jewish communal spectrum tasked with creating a trip community that celebrates Jewish diversity, peoplehood and a common commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. Trained to see themselves as Israel educators and as critical reflection resources, these professionals help the participants process their experiences in a developmentally appropriate way. Meanwhile, the youth-serving organizations they represent see the trip as a common investment in the future for their staff, who are encouraged to invite and include all trip alumni in their high school events.

The results speak for themselves.  Taking 8th graders to Israel on a trip designed for their developmental needs, with professional staff that role models what community looks like—and having well-organized, robust follow-up plan and programs—produces positive, engaged, and committed Jewish adolescents.

The time to ensure active Jewish high schoolers is in 8th grade. Your future community will thank you for it.

Rabbi Scott T. Aaron, PhD, is the Associate Vice President for JUF Education at the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, and the Lead Educator for the IsraelNow Educational Foundation (INEF). INEF has been generously endowed to help Jewish communities across North America to develop and subsidize their own 8th grade Israel trip programs and local teen programming infrastructure. To learn more about how your community can start an IsraelNow trip, contact the INEF Executive Director, John Lowenstein, at jlowenstein@israelnowtrip.org.  

Source: eJewish Philanthropy (Photo: Courtesy: IsraelNow)