Study tells community to engage youth after Israel

A three-week program in Israel so inspired Mountain View resident Bill Korn that he started observing Shabbat upon his return.

He also formed a chavurah (informal congregation) for other young Jews and started attending weekly study sessions with a local Conservative rabbi. A year from this fall, Korn will enter rabbinical school.

"The question I didn't realize I was asking by going to Israel is, `What is permanent in my life?'" the 28-year-old said. "I realized there that being Jewish is permanent, that no matter what changes, that is something I have."

The good news, according to a new study, is the majority of young people who go on Israel programs return, like Korn, with a heightened sense of Jewish identity and a desire to connect with Jewish life.

The bad news, according to the report, is that the Bay Area Jewish community doesn't do enough to involve the young people after their Israel experiences have ended.

The study was conducted by Gary Tobin and Joel Streicker of the Institute for Community and Religion in San Francisco. After interviewing 246 Bay Area residents who participated in programs to Israel during their teen years or early 20s, the researchers concluded the community is not fully tapping a precious resource.

"There's a tremendous cadre of leadership to be developed out of these folks," said Tobin, director of the institute. "The study indicates that we don't as a community benefit as much as we should from the investments we make in these trips."

The 52-page study was commissioned by a range of organizations who sponsor and fund youth trips to Israel — the Koret Foundation, the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco, the Agency for Jewish Education of the Greater East Bay, the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose, the Israel Project and the Northern California Hillel Council.

But the results have implications for the Jewish community as a whole, Tobin said. "It's not just an issue for the Bureau or the AJE, but also for synagogues, federation, all Jewish communal organizations."

The subjects of the study — more than half of whom still live in the Bay Area — participated in a variety of programs, including programs for teens, university study programs, religious-oriented programs, and volunteer work.

Most participants said their Israel experiences led to greater religious sentiment or practice; helped instill them with pride in being Jewish; fostered feelings of attachment to other Jews; and increased their desire to work or volunteer in the Jewish community.

Some in fact, do just that — with one working for Jewish Family and Children's Services, one a synagogue program director, one an assistant director at Hillel and several teachers at religious schools.

At the same time, other study subjects called mainstream synagogues and organizations void of spiritual vitality, too formal, and not encouraging of young people's participation.

"It's not atypical for younger Jews to assume leadership positions, have all kinds of innovative ideas and energy, and then come into traditional boards where people say `we don't do it that way,'" Streicker said.

Perhaps partly as a result of that type of experience, the study found that most young alumni of Israel programs tend to continue their Jewish involvement outside the mainstream Jewish community. A number become grassroots leaders in liberal political and social causes.

Jewish community leaders don't necessarily see that as a bad thing.

"I think [that type of activity] is healthy as long as there are ways the community supports those efforts and doesn't work against them," said Bob Sherman, associate director of the Bureau of Jewish Education.

"I don't think the organized Jewish community can be expected to meet every kind of need."

Still, Sherman and others say there are ways the Jewish community can engage the Israel alumni while their post-trip enthusiasm is still at its peak.

"I could sure see where there would be a lot of places you could use kids who had been on Israel programs," said Beth Kellman, director of school services at the Agency for Jewish Education.

Kellman suggested that some alumni would be particularly good at guiding other young people toward Israel programs and bringing their enthusiasm to the classroom as religious school teachers.

Such activities, she said, would "keep the momentum going that was started when they go" to Israel.

In their report, Tobin and Streicker offer other suggestions for keeping that momentum. Though some Israel programs already hold regular reunions and produce newsletters to help alumni stay in touch, the researchers want to see more such efforts.

Tobin and Streicker also urge the community to consider expanding funding and financial aid for programs to Israel, with special focus on teens and Russian immigrants.