June 26, 2019

BJE replaces L.A. Ulpan

The Los Angeles Ulpan has been reborn.

The eight-week summer study tour of Israel, created by the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) back in 1964, introduced thousands of local high school students to their Jewish homeland. Over the decades, L.A. Ulpan became the model upon which scores of other teen Israel programs were based. Now, however, the ulpan — which once prided itself on combining for-credit Hebrew classes with travel fun — is giving way to a new and radically different venture.

In summer 2002, for the first time, BJE offers L’Atid. This translates as "To the Future," but L’Atid is also an acronym for Los Angeles Teen Israel Dialogue.

At the peak of its popularity, the L.A. Ulpan served 150 teenage travelers each summer. Last year, with teens and their parents unnerved by the renewed intifada, a mere 14 made the trip. But the L.A. Ulpan cannot be counted as yet another victim of Palestinian terrorist acts. Long before political tensions began to rise, a task force made up of BJE personnel and community leaders was meeting to reconsider long-standing teen programs that enjoy Bureau sponsorship.

One conclusion was that BJE had no business competing with other well-established Israel trips, such as those run by Young Judea and thee B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. Though task force members recognized the ulpan’s high quality, they agreed that teens could easily find a comparable Israel experience elsewhere.

Out of this new way of thinking came L’Atid, geared toward a small group of highly motivated high school students who seek an in-depth understanding of Israel’s place in today’s world.

Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE’s associate director, explained that the 25 participants will first travel from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., where they will be briefed on American public policy toward Israel and the Middle East. The bulk of their five-week trip will be spent in Israel, where they will learn firsthand about the land and its people. They will participate in educational seminars and be given the opportunity to exchange views with national leaders, as well as with teens like themselves. Though tourist activities will be part of the mix, their chief goal will be to gain insight, in hopes of becoming well-informed advocates for Israel when they return home.

Meanwhile, several other venerable BJE projects are still undergoing review. These include Havurat Noar, a 35-year-old program dedicated to strengthening Jewish identity in ninth-graders through classes and weekend retreats. Focus groups have uncovered the fact that today’s college-bound teenagers, pressed for time and convinced of the necessity of résumé-building, increasingly find programs like Havurat Noar obsolete.

The BJE’s solution lies in offering what Liff-Grieff called an "open university concept." There may soon be a network of BJE special interest groups scattered across the greater Los Angeles area through which teens can pursue their passion for such things as journalism, outdoor adventures, social service and sports, all within a Jewish context. Liff-Grieff pointed out one advantage of the new approach: it can serve young Jews of every stripe, including Orthodox teens who have traditionally shunned BJE youth activities, because groups would be organized in terms of "what these kids have in common, not what separates them."

When asked if the demise of the L.A. Ulpan has caused public outcry, Liff-Grieff admitted that he has heard complaints from ulpan alumni "mourning the loss of something that was important in their lives." Both he and Stacey Barrett, BJE’s director of youth education services and Israel programs, insisted that serious-minded youngsters looking for leadership opportunities are thrilled by L’Atid’s new direction. Still, given the political uncertainties in Israel right now, it may prove difficult to assemble a core group of travelers.

Barrett has phoned the parents of students who canceled out of last year’s L.A. Ulpan program, but all regard the trip as too risky to consider. By contrast, she has discovered families so committed to Israel, and so respectful of BJE’s prudently designed safety policies, that "the whole security issue isn’t an issue."

For further information about L’Atid, contact Stacey Barrett at (818) 464-3395. Registration deadline is March 1,. Major discounts, scholarships and subsidies are available, and — in light of the region’s current instability — all payments are completely refundable.