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The Birthright Israel flip side: Fewer high school students traveling to Israel

NEW YORK (JTA) — With the summer travel season fast approaching, providers of Israel programs for teenagers are bracing themselves for what several say could be a season of historically low travel in a year unaffected by major security concerns.

Over the past decade, Israel travel among those aged 13 to 18 has seen a dramatic falloff. Though exact figures are difficult to come by, leaders of several leading North American teen programs say they have seen drops of 30 percent to 50 percent in participation in their Israel trips since 2000. Two recent studies point to a roughly 40 percent drop in the number of North American 13- to 18 year-olds going to Israel.

“I think every year [the overall number of high schoolers going to Israel] is getting smaller and smaller,” said Avi Green, the executive director of BBYO Passport, a provider of travel programs for teens. “And there’s no reason to believe this year won’t be the smallest.”

Though leaders of teen programs acknowledge the role of Middle East violence during the second intifada and the 2007 financial crisis in depressing participation, they unanimously point to one central cause of the decline: Taglit-Birthright Israel, a program created to provide free Israel trips for Jews aged 18 to 26.

Founded in 2000 to counter the decline in Israel attachment and Jewish identity among North American Jews, the program has brought hundreds of thousands of Jewish young adults to Israel on the 10-day trips, including a projected 20,500 North Americans this year alone, which would be a record. Yet the promise of a free Israel trip seems to have had a flip side: thousands of parents of Jewish high schoolers deferring Israel travel until their children are eligible for Birthright.

According to an internal survey conducted in 2008 by BBYO Passport, 30 percent of parents whose children were BBYO members said they preferred sending their kids on Birthright. Another 28 percent said they preferred high school trips, while 40 percent were undecided.

“Birthright is an extraordinary experience,” said Paul Reichenbach, the director of Union for Reform Judaism’s Camping and Israel Programs. “We’re a big supporter of it. Yet at the same time it’s made it difficult for sponsors of high school trips to get traction.”

According to a 2010 report, the overall number of 13- to 18 year-olds traveling to Israel from around the world dropped from a record 20,000 in 2000, the year of Birthright’s founding, to 12,000 in 2009. Elan Ezrachi, a fellow at the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and the study’s author, said approximately half of those participants are North Americans.

Ramie Arian, who conducted a separate 2011 study focusing specifically on teen travel from North America, came to a similar conclusion: the number of high schoolers going to Israel has dropped 40 percent since 2000, though the numbers have since stabilized. Meanwhile, Birthright participation has surged, with the program struggling to keep up with demand.

Len Saxe, a Brandeis University professor who has done extensive research on Birthright, acknowledged that some programs have taken a hit, but claimed the overall numbers of teens traveling to Israel may have risen — particularly if one includes the Poland-Israel March of the Living trip, which the two studies did not.

“Based on the available data, I believe what’s happened is that there has been a shift,” Saxe said. “The shift is toward shorter programs that engage younger people — middle school trips, in particular, have grown and there are other short-term programs, including March of the Living. Instead of the normative programs [being] six weeks during the summer late in high school, there are more two-week trips.”

With no central body tracking data, it’s hard to evaluate such claims. But several academics said the move away from longer term high-school travel is both clear and detrimental. Experiencing Israel as an adolescent rather than as a young adult, Ezrachi said, is more impactful. And teenagers have more follow-up opportunities through synagogue youth groups or Jewish day schools than those who return to college campuses, a drawback Birthright has belatedly sought to address.

“Its not enough for the Birthright people to say this is not my problem,” said Jack Wertheimer, a history professor and former provost at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “The question is whether they are willing to invest their resources to maintain these teen trips. The summer teen trips are much longer, much more impactful, and may end up bringing teens to Israel to study and work there. Something ought to be done.”

Proponents of teen travel have offered a number of ways to level the playing field, including distributing philanthropic dollars more equally between trips for adolescents and young adults, or creating an Israel voucher that could be used for any number of travel options.

Gideon Shavit, the head of Lapid, a coalition representing 30 providers of teen programs to Israel, said the Israeli government should be supporting teen travel as it supports Birthright — to the tune of $40 million in 2013. But sending kids on a costly multi-week Israel summer trip in high school is a tough sell when there’s a free trip in the offing a year or two down the road.

“Given the choice of spending $7,000 or $8,000 on a two-week trip or nothing on a 10-day trip,” Reichenbach said, “it’s a no-brainer.”