On a pleasant Sunday morning this past spring, 30 local high school students spent several hours immersed in learning about US foreign policy towards Israel. Fully engaged, the teens asked informed questions and demonstrated their nuanced grasp of the complex, wide-ranging issues.
The morning was the closing session of a generously subsidized Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle program, the three-day Center for Israel Education (CIE) Teen Israel Leadership Institute (TILI). At TILI, teens participated in an experience that equipped them with substantive knowledge about Jewish history and Israel, and Jewish leadership skills at a critical time in the development of their Jewish identities and educational careers.
TILI is an example of the Federation’s new focus on deepening connections with Israel through shared experiences. For the teens, TILI was time well spent. Says participant Hannah Boden, “the TILI program was an amazing and inspiring experience for me. By participating in [TILI], I was able to meet others my age around the Seattle area and build a deeper knowledge and connection to Israel.”
Another participant, Edee Polyakovsky, gave TILI high marks for “the sheer amount of material” to which students were exposed. The topics, she says, were presented “rapid fire, one after another.”
A participant survey attested to the program’s impact. Ninety-three percent said TILI increased their knowledge about Israel. Nearly 90 percent hope to travel to Israel before high school graduation using the $2,500 Samis Foundation travel grant they were eligible to receive as a pilot grant, which also can be combined with a Federation Teen Israel Experience Scholarship to further lower a family’s financial barrier to an Israel experience.
The TILI program was led by the Center for Israel Education, founded and directed by Dr. Ken Stein, a professor of modern Middle East history at Emory University. Through interactive learning sessions using primary source documents and discussion, the teens learned about the origins of Zionism, Israel’s history, why Israel matters to American Jews, and contemporary geopolitical trends that will affect the trajectory of Israel’s story.
To apply what they learned — and to be eligible for the travel grant — each TILI participant is required to create an Israel learning project and present it to a youth group, school, or synagogue within six months of completing the program.
For her Israel learning project, Polyakovsky carried out a “distance game” for friends at a USY Shabbat dinner, at which they compared distances in Israel to those in Washington. She says the “most impactful” topic was Stein’s geography lesson, which brought home “how important [it] is to understand the history and politics.” She recalls Stein’s use of a floor map made of masking tape that put into perspective the short distances within Israel. By road, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are only 42 miles apart, about the same as driving between Seattle and Gig Harbor.
Having a solid knowledge base is critical before teens head off to college, where they are likely to encounter challenging viewpoints and misinformation about Israel. As Boden says, the experience “will significantly help me as a transition into college in the next few years.”
TILI helps teens internalize their connection to Israel as a core part of their Jewish identity. Says Ariel Lapson, the Federation’s Israel & World Jewry Program Manager, “Coupling meaningful learning with immersive travel to Israel exemplifies holistic Israel education and must be a priority for our community to ensure future generations build solid Israel connections. Teens with substantive knowledge about Israel and first-hand experiences in the country will have the tools, confidence, experience, and leadership skills to own Israel’s story as their story.”