Experiencing Israel in Year 10 has become an important right of passage for students, regardless of which school they attend. While in the past it was the domain of a small group, who could afford such a trip, the majority now elect to participate in a program, with the momentum building year on year. We are even seeing an exponential growth in student participation from schools where there may only be one Jewish student in the year.

When Youth 2 Israel (Y2i) began offering $5,000 vouchers to students, it had an immediate impact, particularly in the Jewish day schools. Participation levels have flipped, and we now see over 80% involved. Y2i Board Chair Jeremy Dunkel says, “It was an important turning point. Engaging so many students from the likes of Moriah and Masada was a big step in changing the broader Jewish community’s attitudes. The vouchers had a significant impact on Emanuel with almost all their students now attending the school’s six-week Israel program, which did not exist prior to the Y2i vouchers. We not only want this momentum in the Jewish day schools to continue, but we know this momentum is spilling over into other schools.”

BJE have been running a program for nine years, and this year, the positive swing in participation will reach new heights. The numbers have steadily risen for the past couple of years, but for 2017 there is expected to be at least a 50% increase in participants.

Jeremy adds, “It started off with only a few schools represented, now we see kids from places where you would not expect to find Jewish families. St Spyridon. St George, Newtown, St Catherine’s are all joining the growing list. In some cases, there is only one student in the year who is Jewish, but they see the program as a way to connect with their Jewish heritage.”

Talia from St George Girls’ High School went on the BJE Emet Israel program in 2016 and has now joined the Y2i Youth Board, where she wants to help drive a positive impact. “As a group of Jews coming from different backgrounds, we can definitely promote Judaism within the Sydney youth, bringing together the east and the north communities. Encouraging Jews from schools that aren’t Jewish, bringing them to events and meetings, even just to synagogue sometimes or having their own Shabbat dinner. Something for them to be connected, bringing Jews to Judaism.”

Rachel Swartz is the Y2i manager, and she sees first hand the impact being made by the growing numbers of program participants. “Parents are calling us, completing online enrolments, well before their kids reach Year 10, regardless of the school they have them in. Part of the reason for this is when students return they talk about the program publicly and privately. The feedback is so overwhelmingly positive. We are seeing the majority of students giving back to the local community and energising younger kids to want to go when they get to Year 10.”

Jeremy says “The right of passage is an important concept. It’s not something the kids are taking for granted. Both during and after the programs, they are giving back to the community as well as continuing to explore their personal connection to Judaism and Israel.”

Rachel says, “Those students who have experienced the program all say it will tie them together for the rest of their lives. Their friendships and sense of place in the local Jewish community is what they all talk about afterwards.”

Y2i wants the numbers to continue to grow every year. Past participants and students will continue to play a vital role in building this momentum, as will the broader community in sharing stories about the value of these programs.