For many young people in Chicago’s Jewish community, Israel is a distant country they mostly know about from the news. While they may be aware that Israel is their homeland, few have the firsthand experience necessary to be aware of the importance of Israel. Luckily, Jewish teens and young adults throughout Chicagoland have a multitude of ways to reconnect with their roots due, in part, to the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF).
While the Taglit-Birthright Israel program offered by the Birthright Israel Foundation remains the gold standard of homecoming programs, in part due to its donor-funded trip opportunities, JUF can connect interested Jews to a variety of exciting programs. No matter one’s particular Judaic sect, area of expertise, or age, a fascinating and affirming Israeli experience is available. Indeed, with the resources available, the question is often not whether one can go to Israel, but when and why.
Why Travel to Israel Is Important
Despite the wealth of opportunities available at home to immerse oneself in the Jewish heritage, going abroad is a valuable adventure in and of itself. However, for Jewish young people taking their first trip to Israel, the experience is often transformative. A study by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies found that 90 percent of the Birthright program’s participants reported greater feelings of connectedness with Israel, while nearly a quarter of them found the trip meaningful enough to encourage them to raise their own children as Jewish.
While every program includes different itineraries filled with a variety of activities, a visit to Israel affords Jewish people with the opportunity to experience the foundational elements of their faith. Israel is the home of The Western Wall, the city of Jerusalem, and some of the world’s best museums and institutions focused on everything from the Holocaust remembrance to the Zionist movement and Jewish history as a whole. The most important aspect of visiting Israel for many, however, is the idea of “Mifgash,” a Hebrew term for Diaspora Jews meeting their Israeli brothers and sisters. Naturally, while meeting new people and seeing new places is worth the trip alone, many Israel experience programs include exceptional opportunities to further expand one’s horizons.
A Program for Every Jew and for Every Interest
Due to the wealth of opportunities provided for Jews of all ages and interests, it’s possible to combine one’s interest in learning more about Israel with other causes. Students interested in studying abroad will find numerous programs, such as classes at Technion at the Israel Institute of Technology or opportunities at Alexander Muss High School in Israel . Those taking classes through JUF’s Say It In Hebrew! also have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the Hebrew language, particularly through participation in longer programs, such as Masa Israel Journey’s Gap Year or an extended internship through Kibbutz Lotan’s Green Apprenticeship offerings.
Teenagers and young people of the Jewish faith have access to a variety of movement-specific programs, ranging from the North American Federation of Temple Youth to Hadassah’s Young Judaea offerings. Some programs, such as the Career Israel Short Track, are geared toward those interested in job training. Others, like Yad B’Yad or Tzofim Chetz V’Keshet, are designed mainly to provide a fun introduction to Israel and its natural beauty. While many programs are aimed at younger people, Israel also hosts an enormous number of initiatives that are open to participants of all ages, especially volunteer programs like the Magen David Adom ambulance volunteer program or opportunities with the Israeli Fire and Rescue Commission.
Supporting the Cause
Despite the rich variety of programs available to Chicagoland Jews, the most popular way for young people to visit Israel remains through the Birthright experience. More than 500,000 young adults have taken part in the program since its inception in 1999. However, this system, which is supported by tens of thousands of donors, as well as the national Jewish Federation and Israel itself, can only accommodate a certain number of applicants. The 2012 summer session, for example, saw over 37,000 applications for about 18,000 spaces.
Luckily, JUF in Chicago strives to make it possible for any young Jewish person to visit their homeland through a number of funding programs. JUF can help teens find grants such as MASA Israel’s offerings, and it provides numerous ways for teens to obtain funding at home. Its Gift of Israel and Bar/Bat Mitzvah Israel Experience Certificate provide modest gifts to those who achieve savings goals or complete their coming-of-age ceremony, respectively, while its Naftali Steinfeld Israel Experience Merit Scholarship recognizes exceptional Jewish young people with awards enabling them to travel abroad. Its most comprehensive program, Send-a-Kid-to-Israel Partnership (SKIP), provides annual gifts for participants.
In addition, JUF offers several events and programs every year for alumni of Birthright Israel and other programs though Back from Birthright Israel. Some 17,000 people from Chicago are alumni of these programs, and JUF provides a variety of opportunities for them to network, socialize, and volunteer back home. To learn more about the many ways for Chicagoland Jews to travel to Israel, visit www.juf.org.