Israel Programs: The Case for Tel Aviv

January 16, 2014

Source: eJewish Philanthropy


I had to finally write this article to address what I believe is a significant problem with Israel trips not only today but going back several decades since educational tourism became popular. From synagogue and organization missions to Masa programs, and from high school trips to Birthright, we do a horrendous job of exposing Diaspora Jews to Tel Aviv and everything it stands for: modern Israel, the “start-up nation”, religious pluralism, and Jewish peoplehood.


It’s almost become a cliché to reference the Pew Report over the last few months but here we go. We know that a growing number of American Jews simply do not connect to their Judaism through prayer and religious identity. While we can all agree on the need for better education to strengthen Jewish identity (pre-Israel trip programming, post-Israel trip programming, non-Israel related Jewish programming, etc.), we insist on bringing Jews to this magical Jewish laboratory called Israel while almost completely neglecting one of the places/sites/Jewish playgrounds we know many of these people will most strongly connect with.


And I get it. Jerusalem (the place most often compared to and measured against Tel Aviv) has thousands of years of history, heritage, and religious sites. The Kotel, Yad Vashem, the City of David (and not to mention, the offices for most Jewish organizations which have traditionally been based there), and so much more. As Jews have looked east for thousands of years saying “next year in Jerusalem”, this is the place we’ve yearned for, and justifiably so.


But that’s not enough to deprive tourists of what for some of them could be as impactful an experience. To be clear, while we cannot and should not minimize the importance of Jerusalem on a trip, it’s critical to also maximize and showcase the role of Tel Aviv in modern Israel. Not this or that. This and that.


Does Masada make a bigger impact on Jewish identity than time in Tel Aviv? I would argue that it does not. Is Masada more likely to make thousands of young Jews excited to possibly return to Israel for a long-term program, date other Jews, get an internship at an Israeli start-up, or discover a connection to Jewish peoplehood which they never had before? In my opinion? Absolutely not. Now repeat this exercise for many possible sites in place of “Masada”.


Are there fewer obvious historical things to see than in Jerusalem? Yes. Are there thousands of years to explore? No. Should that stop us from being creative? No. Visit Neve Tzedek, walk along Rothschild while hearing the story about Baron Rothschild who helped bring Herzl’s dream to fruition, have participants interview random passersby on the street (Young Judaea had us do this in high school), visit cutting edge high-tech companies … we have fantastic Jewish educators working on both sides of the ocean, I have full faith that we can come up with something.


This is not a suggestion of “fun” over “education”. This is focusing on exploring membership as part of the Jewish nation, a nation and people that young Jews are often “reborn” to feel part of after meeting Israelis who are like them.


Lastly, this isn’t only about the “White City”. This is about evaluating Israel programs and figuring out not only what will turn on our participants to Israel and Jewish identity but also what will not. Israel has changed over 66 years. Our programs should reflect those changes.


Read more at eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: Jan. 29, 2014