Why Invest in Our Teens?

By Nancy B. Greer
President & CEO
On the final morning of the Center for Israel Education (CIE) Teen Israel Leadership Institute (TILI) last month, a small group of adults and I had breakfast and a learning session with the 30 local high school teens who had spent a busy weekend at Hillel UW taking a deep dive into Israel’s story –the story of the Jewish people.

I watched as the teens participated in a high-level lecture on U.S. foreign policy toward Israel with the weekend’s leader, Dr. Ken Stein, President and Director of the Center for Israel Education, as well as a distinguished professor at Emory University. You could see right away how engaged the young people were–they listened carefully, asked penetrating questions, and showed convincingly how well they had begun to master the demanding and complex subject matter.

I, and the other adults who observed TILI, came away impressed with what was accomplished in one weekend. A follow-up survey of the teens validated my impressions about the value of the experience. After completing TILI, 93 percent of the participants said they had increased their knowledge of Israel. Nearly 90 percent plan to travel to Israel or hope to before graduating from high school using the generous $2,500 Samis Israel Education Travel Grant they are eligible to receive as part of their participation in TILI. More than three-fourths said they would recommend TILI to friends and family. We can’t wait to plan TILI for next year – May 1-3, 2020!

TILI was a foundational example of the Federation’s new focus on formative and immersive opportunities for deepening connections with Israel through shared experiences, an initiative that our generous donors have made possible. Our 30 TILI participants represented 11 geographic areas, 18 high schools, and the diverse tapestry of Jewish life in Washington. Coming together as a pluralistic group enhanced the learning, built community, and laid the groundwork for follow-up actions that furthers education and engagement with our Jewish homeland.

TILI fills a critical niche in strengthening teen connections with the Jewish state in a thoughtful and intentional way before they head off to college. For engaging young people in meaningful study and nuanced conversations about Israel, sooner is better than later. As Dr. Stein shared in an interview with Jewish In Seattle magazine earlier this year, teens are learning to be independent thinkers and are developing their own ideas about the world around them. Giving them a solid knowledge base about Israel is critical for helping teens develop their relationship with Israel and their Jewish leadership skills.

The benefits of the program will ripple out far and wide. Each participant, to be eligible for the travel grant, is required to create an Israel learning project and present it in their youth group, synagogue, or school within six months of completing the program. Some have already begun to creatively share their knowledge in the last few weeks!

Learning about Israel’s story through a shared, interactive experience connects the next generation with the collective memory of our people, which is core to Jewish identity. As young people read about Israel’s story, talk about that story with peers, and reflect on its meaning afterward, they are accepting responsibility for ensuring Jewish continuity. How they carry out that responsibility in the future will be as varied as each individual and the life experiences that lie ahead for them.

Providing programs such as the CIE Teen Israel Leadership Institute to our community is paramount for ensuring future generations’ connections with Israel. After witnessing how passionate and engaged the teens in our initial TILI cohort were, I am confident that our community’s future, including our strong connection with Israel, will be in good hands.