RootOne, the Marcus Foundation’s summer educational program for American Jewish teens, expects to help bring 7,000 young people to Israel this summer. That figure is up from 5,000 last summer.
The program, which also has the support of The Jewish Educational Project, provides participants with what the foundation describes as “travel with a purpose,” an in-depth understanding of contemporary Israel, combined with a pre-trip learning experience that complements each teen’s interests.
For all those 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade high school students who qualify, RootOne provides a $3000 grant to one of what is now 48 different RootOne affiliated trip providers. Last year, 129 teens from Atlanta went on the three-week RootOne trips to Israel.
For Rabbi Yoni Kaiser-Bluth, who is responsible for overseeing the Marcus Foundation’s participation in the project, the need for RootOne has continued to grow. Particularly, as Jewish teens encounter rising antisemitism in their communities and anti-Israel activists in educational institutions.
“Antisemitism is rising, not just the rhetoric, but the explicit actions against Jewish people across our country. This is the intervention that we need. The more we can expose our teens before they get to college and engage them, to have them go to Israel, they’re going to come back better educated with more confidence. And that’s both in the real world, but also online…where a lot of the younger generation is.”
This year, RootOne participants will not only experience a deep dive into everyday life in Israel, but they are likely to encounter firsthand the contentious nature of Israel’s present political situation. Last Saturday, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism ,which represents American Reform rabbis that met in Israel last week, spoke to thousands of protesters in Tel Aviv.
Rabbi Kaiser-Bluth was an international Hillel executive and the leader of George Washington University’s Hillel program before coming to the Marcus Foundation. He’s confident that participants in RootOne’s program this summer will come away with a better appreciation of how Israel confronts political decisions.
“We’re not afraid of the tough conversations. That’s a lot of what we’ve been set up to try to accomplish It’s all in the avenues and approaches that we do from an educational standpoint. It’s about confronting these questions head on and being present with both talented staff speakers and those we bring in from the outside who present an honest, sober account of what’s happening.”
The 2023 program intends to repeat last summer’s RootOne’s Big Tent experience, which brought together all of the 2,300 teens who were on RootOne trips at the time. A massive celebration of music, performances and inspiring speeches was held in Rishon LeZion, Israel’s fourth largest city, south of Tel Aviv, and was meant to further inspire participants before they return home.
Last year, Mosaic United, a partnership between the Israeli government and world Jewry, announced an $8 million program over the next three years to double the number of teens who come to Israel each year. As the challenges posed by the pandemic recede, Rabbi Kaiser-Bluth sees a considerable effort to expand the program. The Marcus Foundation projects RootOne to grow over the next few years from 7,500 in 2023 to about 12,000 teens.
Although what has been accomplished so far gets high marks from those who have worked to design the program, in terms of what might be accomplished, the Marcus Foundation still sees RootOne as still very much in start-up mode.
It’s an expansion that, according to Rabbi Kaiser-Bluth, is designed to not only ramp up the numbers, but reach out to those young people who have not been active in their engagement in the Jewish community.
“One of the wonderful things about working for Bernie Marcus is he’s never satisfied. He’s always wondering, okay, what’s next? So, we’re starting to think about how to engage those who are not as connected to the Jewish community and offering trips that would resonate with them. But it will be a heavy lift. Offering trips that would resonate with them is going to take a lot of creativity, a lot of innovation.”