In some respects, RootOne sounds a lot like the much more famous Birthright Israel. It, too, brings young people on heavily subsidized trips to Israel that aim to help teens connect with the Jewish state.
But the New York company does not see Birthright or other Israel-trip providers as competition, according to Simon Amiel, RootOne’s executive director and manager.
“We’re in competition with the idea of chosenness,” Amiel told JNS.
RootOne sees its target audience as young men and women on the outskirts of American Jewish life who don’t attend Jewish day schools or overnight summer camps. Some are even uncomfortable with their Jewish identities.
That’s where the discomfort with “chosenness” comes in, according to Amiel. These young people don’t crave experiences that are exclusively Jewish. “That’s a really interesting conundrum for us to try to figure out and understand,” he said.
RootOne is a company whose sole member is the nonprofit Jewish Education Project. It is a three-year-old initiative of the project with seed funding from the Marcus Foundation. It provides $3,000 in subsidized travel and related expenses for three-week tailored trips to Israel.
With more than 40 trip providers and 30 educational-provider partners across the spectrum of Jewish life, RootOne is trying to send 6,500 young people to Israel this summer. That’s an optimistic increase from last year’s 5,000, but Amiel told JNS that RootOne isn’t afraid of missing that lofty aim. Along the way, it would get a better sense of what works and would subsequently “recalibrate and figure out our strategy.”
“We’re really trying to blaze new trails here,” he told JNS.
RootOne has drawn participants from every U.S. state except Wyoming and South Dakota, reported Amiel. As Birthright has endured significant budgetary challenges over the last year, RootOne has also found it harder to shoulder the costs of sending teens to Israel.
The $3,000 voucher it offers doesn’t go as far as it did last year or two years ago, due to inflation, higher travel costs and a strong shekel compared to the dollar.
The organization has leaned on its partners to find ways to bring costs down, but Amiel has no doubt that some families are priced out of the market. RootOne is considering scaling down its programs from three to two weeks and providing larger subsidies to fewer participants, he said.
“Our partner organizations are doing a remarkable job of still getting numbers in and figuring out how to find additional funding when they need it. But it’s not sustainable, and we want to take the lead in helping that specifically,” Amiel said.
‘A greater level of impact’
In addition to “chosenness,” Amiel identified several other competitors.
“We’re now in competition with video games, with travel outside of the Jewish community, with internships or pre-professional work that a lot of families want their teens to be engaged in,” he said.
His strategy is to meet teens where they are by tailoring new experiences to their primary interests and identities. The trips are situated in Israel with a Jewish-Israeli context, but there are also other themes.
“The primary focus might be on entrepreneurialism,” he said. “We’re incubating a new experience where teens who are really compelled by entrepreneurialism will participate. And it starts six months before they get to Israel.”
The program matches interested teens with Israeli entrepreneurs, who work together for six months prior to the participants’ departures. Once in Israel, the teens pitch their startup idea to a panel of Israeli entrepreneurs.
“So for a kid who’s not thinking about Israel but about pre-college and pre-professional experiences and entrepreneurialism, that’s exciting,” said Amiel. He acknowledged that the fact that the venue is in Israel may be a bonus—or “it may not matter at all.”
The point is to get young people to the Jewish state so they can begin to understand the nature of Israel in terms of business, while simultaneously learning its history and its relative importance to Jewish identity and Jewish life.
“From just our pure data-collection perspective, we’re seeing a greater level of impact the Israel experiences have on teens who are less connected Jewishly than teens who are more connected,” Amiel said. “They have further to grow.”