Study after study has demonstrated that transformative short and long-term experiences have a tremendous impact on young people's connection to Judaism and Israel. For this reason, the Jewish Agency's Education Department and the Government of Israel have partnered to create MASA - an initiative designed to bring young people to Israel for a semester to a year.
One North American community, in particular, Cincinnati, has shown tremendous foresight in creating a revolutionary initiative to provide funding for their sons and daughters, ages 16-23, to travel to Israel and participate in selected educational programs.
Since 2000, The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, a private philanthropy, has offered Jewish youth generous monetary scholarships for participation in educational Israel experiences. Recently, the highest-level scholarship was raised to an astounding $9,000 per young adult. This money is available during two discrete time periods: Jewish teenagers attending local high schools are eligible to receive as much as $6,000 to be applied to selected Israel programs, and college students may request an additional $3,000. This grant may be used for programs including denominational summer trips for high school students and long-term MASA programs such as OTZMA and University programs.
Warren Falberg, the treasurer of the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, and former chair of the Task Force on the Israel Experience and Jewish Residential Camping explains that the goal is to motivate parents and kids, and remove all barriers that might prevent students from going to Israel. He emphasizes the inclusivity of the initiative, both in terms of the range of available programs and the criteria for acceptance.
He points out that "The Unaffiliated are terribly important and were significant in our original thinking," he says, "particularly in cases where only one parent is Jewish."
Sure enough, Cincinnati saw participation rise dramatically, in fact, more than double, between 1999 and 2000. Professional and lay leaders in the Cincinnati Jewish community point to the tremendous impact already felt on the local and national level. Students have become more involved with the local Federation, maintaining an Israel teen council, and organizing pro-Israel rallies, even larger and more spirited than those run by adults. They also serve as staff for Israel trips.
"We are educating and reinvigorating the next generation of Jewish leader," says Connie Hinitz, the Foundation administrator.
The young grant recipients also recognize that Israel trips change and enrich their lives. Elise Greenberg, 19, now a first-year student at American University, says that her experiences in Israel on a NIFTY summer program and her participation in the March of the Living were truly transformative both in terms of her connection to Israel and to the Judaism.
"It almost felt like it was the missing piece of my Jewish education," she says. "it was the last piece I need to cement my Jewish identity."
The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati has created a true formula for success in engaging youth with Israel. I commend Cincinnati on its unparalleled commitment to the Jewish future and its foresight in focusing on the next generation, and also urge the other communities to follow their example. At this critical juncture in Jewish history, we must seize every opportunity to ensure that our children and grandchildren find meaningful ways of connecting to their heritage, people and homeland.