Oct 3, 2017
Susan Holzman Wachsstock

The New Wave: Specialty Israel Teen Experiences


In the history of teen Israel experiences, the summer of 2017 should be remembered for a major addition to the landscape.

Over the last decade, specialty summer camping firmly established its place within the Jewish community.  Camps such as Eden Village and URJ Six Points have demonstrated the power of catering to the specific interests ― and some would argue personality types ― of our children. Yet, until this summer, the teens could not experience Israel through the short-term “specialty” formula.

With the launch of three new programs incubated through the New York Teen Initiative – an initiative jointly funded by UJA-Federation of New York and the Jim Joseph Foundation and –  specialty Israel experiences have arrived in Israel.

What’s noteworthy about this? Collectively, these programs signal a new wave of Israel experiences for American teens that cater to specific interests and, arguably, personality types that weren't being served. According to an evaluation of teen participants in this program conducted by Rosov Consulting, 71% of respondents reported that they would not have otherwise gone on an Israel trip had these programs not been introduced.

Here’s a sketch of the teens that specialty Israel experiences attracted to Israel this summer:

  • Notebooks at the ready, the students on URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Israel, were active participants as they traveled through Israel. (78% of the group were first-time visitors to the Jewish homeland.) Notebooks out? On an Israel Experience? Yes! These students love science and technology. They are curious, creative and eager to learn -  and to capture their learnings. Rather than just visiting an archaeological dig, they went into the lab to analyze the artifacts that they unearthed.  They visited the emerging Tel Aviv transit system (think the building of a new subway system) and learned about the engineering behind digging underground – not to mention how, in a country filled with precious archaeological artifacts, they are building this transit system while ensuring that no historical content is destroyed.

  • Dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt, another group of teens wake up at 7 a.m. to head out – not to a tour bus, but to work!  The teens on NCSY’s NextStep Israel clock in a full 8-hour work day, four days a week for 5 weeks. Interning in Labs at Hadassah Hospital, law firms or fashion companies these teens opted to build their experience and their resumes in Israel. In the evening – they may meet with an entrepreneur-in-residence or visit Kol HaOt to create tangible memories of their learnings and experiences.  On Fridays and Sundays, they head out on tiyul (a travel day) to experience Israel as a tourist should. But on Monday, they are once again business interns, medical interns, real estate interns, etc.

  • Spades in hand and work gloves on, participants on Roots Israel (a joint program of Alexander Muss High School in Israel and JNF) roll up their sleeves on a three-week journey getting their hands dirty. Whether planting crops for immigrant communities in the Negev, or building a wheel-chair accessible pathway so physically challenged individuals can “hike” as is common in Israel, these socially conscious teens are not simply fulfilling their community service requirements for school.  Instead, Roots’ teens are forging their own relationship with Israel.  Through hands-on service learning experiences focused on environmental consciousness and social sustainability these teens explore the intersection of their Jewish values, global change and discover their personal capacity to improve the community around them upon their return home.

So, again, why is this such a big deal?  Many of the teens on these programs would not have planned for an Israel experience at all this summer. Most of them certainly would not have simply joined a general teen tour.  These teens have interests.  They have pre-collegiate goals.  They came to Israel this summer because they could pursue these interests and goals AND be in Israel.  Just as specialty camping is making Jewish camping accessible and attractive to children who want to spend their summers pursuing a special passion – say the arts – so too can a specialty Israel Experience bring teens to Israel who might otherwise have no interest in visiting.

This is the heart of the transformation underway.

In the 1970’s and 80’s, the Israel Experience became a popular, if not normative, right-of-passage for teens engaged in Jewish life. In 2017, that is no longer the case.

Today, Israel is an afterthought if a thought at all for the teen years. The communal reasons for this are numerous and the topic for another piece.  But, summer adventures that build a college resume or advance a niche passion, those concepts are front and center for Jewish teens and their families today.  The opportunity to do this in a foreign country can be the adventure of a lifetime (Not to mention a great college essay.)  And, for those who need it, available scholarship funds make the overseas adventure a realistic one.

For those of us determined to connect teens to meaningful Jewish experiences – not to mention to establishing a personal connection with Israel before teens arrive on college campuses – there is no more powerful experience than a summer experience.  Specialty Israel experiences have the power to do both of these things.  If we see this market grow, as I hope we do, we will look back on the summer of 2017 as the summer when the status quo was overturned and a new era began – one might even look back and say it was nothing short of a revolution.

Susan Wachsstock is Managing Director of Teen Engagement.

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