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March 8, 2001

Forging Ahead

Ulpan group to proceed despite enrollment drop.

http://www.jewishjournal.com/education/article/forging_ahead_20010309

Jon Drucker, co-chair of the BJE Youth Programs Committee, fought to retain this year's L.A. Ulpan.

Jon Drucker, co-chair of the BJE Youth Programs Committee, fought to retain this year's L.A. Ulpan.

For the past 37 summers, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE) has sent high school students to Israel through its pioneering L.A. Ulpan program. This year, that long tradition nearly ended.

A sharp drop in enrollment, precipitated by the current unrest in Israel, came close to derailing plans for the 2001 trip. But with nearly 30 students now signed up (as opposed to last year's 90), the BJE's executive board decided on Feb. 26 to approve the eight-week trip, despite the possibility that it might sustain a loss of up to $20,000.

The BJE situation exemplifies what has been going on nationwide. Virtually all American Jewish youth organizations that sponsor Israel trips are now grappling with low enrollments after several years of exponential growth.

The BJE's internal debates began back in January, when only 18 students had submitted applications. In sending a group that small, the executive board would be facing a loss of as much as $40,000. A spirited discussion, in which some members argued for the importance of showing solidarity with Israel and others noted financial need within L.A.'s own Jewish educational community, resulted in the postponement of a final decision for a month.

Meanwhile, the BJE expanded its recruitment efforts, briefing parents on the security measures that would be in place during this summer's trip and extending the early-bird deadline to March 1. As applications slowly trickled in, the Ulpan group began to look increasingly viable, both socially and economically. In the words of the BJE's Dr. David Ackerman, "at the end of the day it was quite unanimous" that the trip proceed as planned.

For Jon Drucker, co-chairman of the BJE Youth Programs Committee that has consistently favored holding the L.A. Ulpan this summer, the cancellation of the program was not a real option.

"It would be a horrible statement if the L.A. Jewish community did not have enough support for Israel to send a group," said Drucker, who himself went on Ulpan in 1970.

Noting the recent death of Irwin Soref, who co-founded the Ulpan program back in 1964, Drucker insisted that "to not send a program to Israel in the summer immediately following his passing struck a lot of people as doubly tragic." Drucker personally believes that even if very few parents were willing to sign up their children, the BJE should accommodate them with an Israel trip: "Of course we're going to take necessary security precautions, but even if we had to drive kids around in a taxi, that was a statement this community should be making."

Earl Greinetz, a BJE vice-president, at one point held the opposite view. Back in January, alarmed over both the dire situation in Israel and the prospect of holding Ulpan for a mere handful of teenagers, he suggested that the wise course was to cancel. By the February meeting, however, Greinetz had reconsidered his position. He now believes that "if parents feel strongly enough that they want to send their children, we shouldn't turn them down." If a wave of last-minute cancellations reduces the numbers dramatically, leaving a group so small that the teens cannot have a good communal experience, Greinetz would probably vote to call the trip off. But he's not afraid of the prospect of a $20,000 loss if the current enrollment holds. Given the BJE's $5 million annual budget, Greinetz insisted that "a $20,000 loss at this point is not very large."

Across the United States, most Israel programs for teenagers are facing enrollments that are far below what was once anticipated. Paul Reichenbach, national director of Israel and travel programs for the Reform movement's North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) said, "This year, if we have 50 percent of what we had last summer, we'll be thrilled."

The exception is those trips specifically designed for teens who are allied with various Jewish camping movements. Camp Ramah, the camping program of the Conservative movement, has signed up 59 travelers, down only two from the number who went to Israel last summer. Similarly, the trip sponsored by the Reform movement's camp network has now reached 80 percent of last year's enrollment.

Reichenbach explains that families involved with Jewish camping tend to be "your most committed, knowledgeable people. They trust in the institution to make the right health and safety decisions" for their children. And the children, after years of attending summer camp together, are determined not to miss the special summer in Israel that will be the culmination of their camping experience.

By contrast, Stacey Harvey of B'nai B'rith Youth Organization (BBYO) has seen only three local sign-ups, when last year there were 35. It's not that BBYO teens don't want to make the trip: "I had tons of kids who wanted to go, but their parents wouldn't let them." Harvey is convinced that the parents' decisions are based on fear and not economics. There are, she notes, many scholarships available to students whose parents can't afford the $5,000 price tag that is typical of student Israel trips. But because BBYO also hosts a free 10-day Birthright trip to Israel for college students, some families have made the pragmatic decision to hold off on plans for travel to the Jewish state until their children are older.

Jewish youth professionals hardly make light of the fears that many parents are feeling. "I'm a parent also. It's definitely a concern," said Rabbi Steven Burg, director of the West Coast branch of the Orthodox movement's National Council of Synagogue Youth.

Though every program is happy to discuss its security provisions, no one wants to coerce parents or guarantee that their children will be safe. Young Judaea, which runs one of the nation's largest Israel programs, has tried demonstrating that travel in Israel can be safe and enjoyable by sending 60 student leaders on a four-and-a-half-day solidarity mission. The Conservative movement's United Synagogue Youth (USY) organized a group of parents who went to Israel late last year for what amounted to an extended security briefing.

Stuart Lorch of West Hills was on that USY parents trip. Nervous before his departure, he was relieved to find that "the Israel that I saw when I landed on Dec. 2 was virtually the same as the Israel I saw [on a family vacation] in July. It's not the Israel we see on CNN."

Since his return, Lorch has talked to many parent groups throughout Southern California, explaining why he feels comfortable about sending his daughter Jennifer on a USY Israel trip this summer. Lorch explained that "for those who are willing to listen, it's not that tough of a sell. The problem is getting people to want to listen."

Attendance at those parent meetings has been distressingly sparse. As Lorch put it, "Many parents have already made up their minds, and don't want to be confused by facts."

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