In coming up with the idea for Jewish Service – a new program that sends recent high school grads to Israel for a year of service – Peter Ekstein started with a little “doom and gloom.” He ended up spurring Israeli companies offering similar services to lower their prices.
It all started with Ekstein’s fear that the Canadian Jewish community is becoming less cohesive. He cited the rising rates of intermarriage, the falling rates of participation in Jewish institutions – like synagogues, day schools and summer camps – and the growing divide in attitudes towards Israel between older and younger Jews.
But Ekstein didn’t despair. He tried to identify part of the problem and design a solution to help strengthen the future of Toronto’s Jewish community. He zeroed in on the cultural differences between Canadian and Israeli kids.
“Israeli kids, from the moment they know anything, they know that they’re going to have to contribute to something bigger than themselves. They know that they’re going to have to do their service,” he said. But in Canada, “kids don’t feel so much like they’re part of something bigger than themselves, and they don’t have that feeling of responsibility to anything. And that’s part of what’s causing the results that we’re seeing.”
It was important for Ekstein that any program include at least 50 per cent meaningful volunteer work, such as with a hospital, a food bank or working with Ethiopian refugees. There would also have to be Jewish and Zionist educational components to the program.
Ekstein’s hope was that by making the cost more affordable, more kids would spend a year in Israel and develop an intimate connection to the country. Then they would come back home to Toronto, and as their peers (and their peers’ parents) saw the change in them, more and more recent grads would participate. Eventually, sending high school grads to Israel would ideally become commonplace, like joining the March of the Living.
I would say almost every major gap year provider and youth movement is working towards a year of service track program that is low cost.
– Jenna Potash
“We need to change our paradigm vis-a-vis Israel, understand that we have a role to play more than just writing checks. Doing this will strengthen our community and strengthen the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora,” he said.
But before any of that could happen, Jewish Service would need to be able to provide affordable programs. Ekstein took the idea to the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, which then hired Jenna Potash to help Ekstein’s idea become a reality.
The Jewish Service team, in partnership with The Jewish Agency for Israel and Masa Israel, worked with Sherut Leumi, Israel’s national volunteer service, to create a program that fit the team’s criteria of meaningful volunteer work and education, all for US$5,000 ($6,600), with some participants paying significantly less, thanks to subsidies. By contrast, Ekstein said many similar programs cost between US$15,000 and US$30,000.
The lower cost of the Jewish Service program was made possible through funding from organizations both in Israel and the Diaspora. The pilot program launched at the beginning of September in Haifa with 13 students – six Canadians and seven Americans.
According to Potash, once the other gap year programs saw the immediate success of Jewish Service’s pilot program, they realized it was time to adapt.
“I would say almost every major gap year provider and youth movement is working towards a year of service track program that is low cost. So it’s really been like a small revolution in the Israel gap year world,” she said.
Doing this will strengthen our community and strengthen the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
– Peter Ekstein
Potash said Jewish Service is working with 10 different providers, to help them create affordable gap year programs. Many larger providers are getting in on the action, as well, which will add hundreds of new, affordable options, said Potash.
Jewish Service plans to officially launch next year and 10 students have already applied for next year, even though applications have yet to officially open.
Taken all together, Ekstein’s idea to open up a few more affordable options for Jewish high school graduates has the chance to revolutionize the entire year of service paradigm for all of Diaspora Jews.
For more information, email Jenna Potash.