‘Passport’ program helps parents provide children with Israel experience


While Jennifer Levy, recent graduate of Ladue High School, traveled to Israel for the first time last summer, her parents had been planning for her visit since around the third grade. Levy, 18, was able to tour Israel with a group of about 40 other Jewish teenagers for five weeks due in part to “Passport to Israel,” a savings plan program for Jewish families to afford for their children to visit Israel, explained Karen Rader, director of the Israel Experience Center at the Central Agency for Jewish Education.

The program, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and many local synagogues, allows parents to start saving money so their children can experience Israel first hand.

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Usually starting when a child reaches third grade, parents, many with the help of their synagogue, will start putting away money each year for a period of eight years. About 12 congregations participate in the Passport to Israel program and they contribute anywhere from $35 to $100 per student each year.

The family and congregation contribute a combined total of $200 and the Jewish Federation matches $100 every year for each child who participates from third grade to 10th grade, Rader said. Families and friends can also deposit additional funds to the account, she added.

“With accumulated interest, each child, if they participate every year, would have about $3,000 put aside for a trip to Israel,” she said. The cost of sending a student on a trip varies depending on how long they stay. Costs range between $4,500 to $18,000, Rader said.

Levy used her Passport money to tour Israel with United Synagogue Youth in the summer of 2006. With the help of her parents and Shaare Zedek Synagogue, Levy was able to visit Jerusalem and other cities for the first time. While she spent most of the time touring, she did some volunteer work, including writing letters to Israeli soldiers.

“I’ve gone to Jewish day school from kindergarten to eighth grade, so I knew a lot about the stuff, but it was cool to see where it all happened,” Levy said.

Her father, Joe, said he and his wife went to Israel when they were Jennifer’s age. “It was a great experience and we wanted to give our children the same opportunity,” he said.

“Since the inception of the program, the Jewish Federation felt that it was very important for students to have an opportunity to go to Israel, spend anywhere from three weeks to a year in Israel based on the program they choose,” Rader said. “It helps build their Jewish identity and gives them a better understanding of Israel, a love for Israel.”

Students can choose from about 100 programs. This summer and fall, 40 Jewish students will use their Passport to Israel funds. The summer trips to Israel last between three-to-eight weeks, with academic high school year programs lasting up to 16 weeks.

Rader said in the academic visits students learn in the classroom and then have the opportunity to visit the sites they are learning about.

Yonit Olshan, 19, returned earlier this summer from a nine-month visit to Israel, using her Passport to Israel funds. Unlike many of the participants, Olshan’s trip to Israel was not her first time.

“I grew up in Israel from age 3 to 9, so I lived there about six years of my life. It was really great and I got to connect with old times that I forgot and are still a part of me,” she said.

Students can use their funds from completion of ninth grade until age 26, and students do not have to belong to a congregation to participate.

The program began in 1988 with the first group of students traveling to Israel in 1998. Since its inception, more than 1,500 Passport to Israel savings accounts have been set up and about 450 students have used their funds toward an experience in Israel.

For more information about the Passport to Israel program, contact Karen Rader, director of the Israel Experience Center at CAJE, at 314-442-3756 or [email protected].