New savings plan to ease cost of teen trips to Israel

To help offset the formidable costs of sending teens to Israel, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation will help parents start saving money for trips long before their children become teenagers.

Through its new Gift of Israel Savings Program, the JCF will set aside $125 per year for each participating child. Children can enroll in the program beginning in the third grade.

The child's congregation will contribute $50 annually to the fund. And families will be asked to add a minimum of $150 per year to the special interest-bearing savings account held by Bank Leumi. The interest rate will be linked to the prime rate.

"This is a landmark policy — the federation in partnership with synagogues and families — and the benefits will reverberate in Jewish life," said Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El.

A teen trip to Israel, he said, can be "transformative. It seals the connection between our children and Jewish life."

Emanu-El is among the first local congregations to adopt the program. Others include Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame and Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.

According to Russ Holdstein, chair of the JCF's Gift of Israel committee, five additional congregations are poised to sign on.

Rabbi Alan Berg of Beth El — where some 50 percent of confirmands go on the annual Bureau of Jewish Education's summer trip to Israel — said a plan such as the Gift of Israel Savings Program has been on his personal agenda for some time.

"Financial implications play a huge part in a student not taking the trip, and a savings plan is necessary so that more families can afford to participate," Berg said.

Last summer, approximately 7,500 high school- and college-age U.S. Jews — less than 2 percent of the total — took trips to Israel. Currently, about 300 Bay Area Jewish teens, also a small percentage, go to Israel each year.

Such numbers helped spark the Montreal-based Charles R. Bronfman Foundation to conceive of the Gift of Israel program and promote it nationally. Studies have shown that a positive Israel experience for teens bolsters Jewish identity and increases the chances of active participation in Jewish communal life.

Through the Gift of Israel Savings Program, the JCF has agreed to spend $843,000 over the next 10 years to subsidize Israel trips for an estimated 32 percent of local teenagers. The money will be raised through the annual campaign, endowment and foundation funds.

Several federations across the country, including those in New York City, Boston, Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, have undertaken similar programs.

Synagogues, for their part, will raise their subsidies in various ways.

To get the gift of Israel savings program under way, Beth El has allocated funds from its '96-'97 budget. The next step, Berg said, will be to develop an endowment campaign.

At Kol Shofar, where up to 90 percent of the synagogue's confirmation students sign up for the BJE trip each year, donors have committed to supporting the first two years of the program, according to Barb Farber, a congregant and member of the JCF board.

"Then if we have to, we'll budget it," she said.

Farber, a member of the JCF Gift of Israel committee, has already enrolled her son, who recently had a bar mitzvah, in the new program. The mother of an older teen going to Israel this summer, Farber said she wishes she had been able to get an early start on saving money for that trip.

"If we had a program like this available when my daughter was in the third grade or seventh grade, I wouldn't be looking at a $5,000 bill this summer," she said.

Those students who enter in the seventh grade, generally the bar and bat mitzvah year, do so under slightly different financial arrangements than those enrolling earlier. They will receive $200 a year from the JCF, $50 from the congregation and a minimum of $250 from the family. Relatives and friends are encouraged to donate to the fund on holidays and special occasions.

For those students who do enter in the third grade, savings from eight years of the program, which ends after the tenth grade, will total $2,600, plus accrued interest. That's more than half of what it currently costs to send a child on the six-week summer in Israel program offered by the BJE. Though that trip is popular among teenagers, they may use the money from the account to travel to Israel on other organized educational trips as well.

Such trips, however, must last at least five weeks, a period the Gift of Israel Savings Program committee said would enable teenagers to bond with their peers and see a broad range of sights. The savings, therefore, cannot be used to fund the Koret Israel teen trip, which is just over three weeks in length.

Trips funded by the Gift of Israel Savings Program also must include an itinerary, and participants must be between the ages of 16 and 18.

There are other stipulations governing who can participate.

While parents need not be federation donors to participate, they must ensure that their children remain in a formal Jewish education setting throughout their enrollment in the fund program.

Bay Area youngsters whose families are not members of congregations may join but they will not receive a synagogue contribution and will be required to enroll in some sort of formal education program.

The JCF board approved the gift of Israel savings program last fall but recruitment is only starting now that synagogues have adopted the plan.

Holdstein envisions a time when every synagogue in the Bay Area signs on.

"We encourage interested synagogue members to talk to their rabbis and boards," he said, "so that a year from now, everyone is on board."