RootOne is a major initiative by the Atlanta-based Marcus Foundation to send American Jewish teens on an intensive summer trip to Israel.
While the organization doesn’t directly provide programs for the teens, they are active in deepening the experience before and after they return. The program is supported by a three-year $60 million grant from the Foundation. The AJT spoke with Simon Amiel, executive director of RootOne, about how the program is progressing.
AJT: Where is RootOne after two years of the pandemic?
Amiel: It’s been a really big lift for us to be able to try to move our mission forward. There’s just a lot of work to do in order for us to get to where we need to get to. But there’s been remarkable new energy coming off of last year from our evaluation work in just having a year under our belts. So it’s been a great learning experience and a great way for us to be able to build up the initiative organically. Where we are is that in the last year we served 4,000 kids, and this year we are hoping to serve 7,000. And we worked last year with 20 different organizations. This year we’re working with 40 organizations.
AJT: How did the COVID pandemic affect the RootOne program?
Amiel: We were slated to take about 5,400 kids, but primarily because of COVID we lost about 1,400 … even with that, we took more kids than we did in 2019. We were fortunate to have that sort of window of time, in the summer, when the pandemic was in a little bit of a lull. With the help of the Jewish Agency, we were able to get 4,000 kids into the country when other people weren’t allowed to go. So that was very, very fortunate. It was challenging, but we were able to overcome those challenges. It remains to be seen if that will happen again this summer. But so far, you know, our numbers aren’t necessarily reflecting that. I think, moving forward, we were sort of approaching the other side of the pandemic.
AJT: What is the role of RootOne in helping teens travel to and experience Israel?
Amiel: Our role is to maximize the number of Jewish teens who are participating in the Israel experience, as well as to maximize the impact that those experiences have on these kids. And the way to do that is to work hand-in-hand with existing organizations to alter and elevate the experience they have in Israel. We also work to build components around the trip to deepen the impacts of the experience. As an example, in the last year, we have built a platform so that every single teen who receives a voucher from us participates in many hours of learning prior to stepping on the plane. They’re learning a good amount about what they’re about to experience. And none of that existed prior to our involvement with these organizations. And another example is ensuring that we’re working with organizations to offer a robust series of post-trip experiences that are opportunities for kids once they return to learn more, to do more, to deepen their relationship and knowledge of Israel.
AJT: What sort of funding does Root One provide?
Amiel: The first is that we provide funding that translates into a $3,000 travel voucher for eligible 10th, 11th and 12th grade teens to go on experiences that are at least three weeks long. We don’t fund any experiences that are shorter than three weeks. In addition to that, we provide infrastructure funding. Because we’re working together to really expand the number of kids that are coming out of these trips and to be able to do more educationally, there’s a greater infrastructure need. Organizations need to hire more people. They need to do a search of different things. So we provide funding there, and we now ask every one of our grantee organizations to incorporate Israeli teens into their experiences in Israel, which is another expense we have to offset.
AJT: What has been Bernie Marcus’s goal in providing funding for RootOne?
Amiel: Mr. Marcus is very clear. He is deeply concerned about the rising rates of antisemitism on campus, and he believes that if we’re able to get more American Jewish teens to Israel before they get on campus, they will have a higher level of knowledge and confidence that they wouldn’t have necessarily otherwise had in terms of Israel and their Jewish identity. And so, if they have that when they step foot on campus, the hope is that they will be better prepared to deal with what I think is a very daunting and challenging environment for kids who are connected to Israel.
More information is available at www.rootone.org.