Focus on Issues: Birthright Israel Prepares to Launch As It Labors over Jewish Agency Role

Increasing the number of Jewish youth spending time in Israel holds myriad benefits — for Jewish continuity, for Israeli-Diaspora relations and for tourism in Israel.

So it’s no wonder that the Jewish Agency for Israel — for decades the premier organization running educational trips in Israel — wants to play a major role in a new initiative that aims to quadruple in the next five years the number of Jewish youth visiting the holy land.

Birthright Israel — brought to life last fall by two major Jewish philanthropists, Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman — will offer free, first-time educational trips to every Jew in the Diaspora aged 15 to 26.

But the people behind the initiative are wary of giving the veteran Jewish Agency too large a role in an endeavor they hope will break new ground in the field of Israel experiences.

The discussions come as the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental agency responsible primarily for aliyah and resettlement, is attempting to revamp itself as an agent for enhancing Jewish unity and strengthening Jewish identity.

At the same time, some American Jewish leaders have been publicly questioning the agency’s relevance, assailing it as an outdated bureaucracy.

Educational trips to Israel have the proven power to foster lifelong connections to Jewish peoplehood and the Jewish state. But in the past decade, the trips — organized mainly by the Jewish Agency, youth movements and local Jewish communities — have failed to fuel a burst in the number of young people visiting Israel both for summer stints and longer stays.

Estimates vary, but according to research by Birthright Israel International’s Jerusalem office, some 20,000 young Jews from all over the world have gone to Israel each of the past two years.

To generate fresh excitement about visiting Israel, Birthright’s creators “wanted to start something with a new image, with a new spirit, with a new vision,” said Shimshon Shoshani, the head of the Jerusalembased international operation.

They want to open it to the participation of different trip providers “without anyone holding a monopoly in his hand.”

Birthright Israel wants to mobilize equal support from Jewish philanthropists, the government of Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities in a three-way partnership to provide $300 million for the project over five years.

That funding would cover the cost of round-trip airfare plus 10 days of a first visit to Israel for Jewish high school, college and post-college youth.

This month, the initiative gained the enthusiastic support of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who agreed “in principle” to fulfill Israel’s financial role in the partnership.

His predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, had also endorsed the plan. Barak said he would announce in September, after hammering out budget issues with his administration, how much money Israel will offer.

Of the 20 philanthropists and private foundations sought to contribute $1 million to the project each year for five years, eight have signed on so far, with three other potential funders lined up.

Jewish federations, envisioned as the third partner in the Birthright triumvirate, will be approached individually over the next year. Meanwhile, 20 communities have reportedly applied to be pilot cities for marketing Birthright Israel and recruiting participants.

Even with incomplete financing, Birthright is launching its first trips this winter.

A dozen Jewish youth groups will provide trips to the 6,000 college kids from North America, Europe and South America expected to take up Birthright’s invitation to visit Israel. Trips for high school students are slated to begin in 2001.

Negotiations now under way among the agency, Birthright Israel and the Israeli government will decide over the next few weeks what role the agency will play.

“The main thing for us” is that the Jewish Agency’s education department “will contribute at the maximum from the educational and the context point of view,” said Amos Hermon, a co-chairman of the education department of the Jewish Agency.

“This is our main idea and our appeal to the philanthropists” and the Israeli administration, he said by telephone from Jerusalem.

Initially the Jewish Agency was offered a role as a kind of standards “ministry” for Birthright Israel — determining the requirements and policies that all trip providers would have to meet in order to be accredited by the initiative.

But insiders at Birthright say that the Jewish Agency wants to not only create the standards, but also to continue to serve as the leading provider of Israel trips.

Birthright’s organizers believe in an “open market approach” — in which, if the Jewish Agency wants to run trips, it must compete with for-profit trip providers.

Competition is essential to the initiative’s success, they say, because it will raise greater interest in Israel trips, increase consumer choice and bring down costs.

“Now the problem is that over 90 percent of those who come to Israel are actively affiliated Jews,” said Birthright Israel International’s chief operating officer, Gideon Mark.

Birthright Israel is meant to appeal to Jews with little active Jewish connection, he said.

The Jewish Agency’s discomfort with a crowded market approach was illustrated recently when Birthright Israel began arrangements to launch its first trips this winter.

The pilot trips, with slots for 5,000 college students from North America and another 1,000 from Europe and South America, are set to fly beginning Dec. 29 and run during winter breaks through February.

About one-half of the college trips were allotted to Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, with the rest being organized by groups representing a range of Jewish religious and ideological streams.

Hillel decided to create its own programming for the trips, while testing various trip providers for logistics and value.

The student organization opened bidding up to a range of providers, reportedly offering the Jewish Agency a quarter of the available trips.

Hermon said he had met with Richard Joel, Hillel’s president and international director, about a collaboration, but disagreed with the educational content Hillel was planning.

The agency does not want to be “just another provider,” Hermon said, adding that he only wanted to work with Hillel if he got “the responsibility for the educational impact. This is my interest. And here we have got the reputation and here we have the expertise.”

On Aug. 28, Joel received a letter from the Jewish Agency saying it would not participate in Hillel’s program.

Hermon said the Jewish Agency was still planning to work with other trip organizers this winter, including Young Judaea, the Reform movement and the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America.

In a telephone interview, Joel said he was disappointed by the Jewish Agency’s response and hopes “to build future relationships” with the agency.

Still he expressed no regret over Hillel’s decision to open the field to competition.

A traditional trip to Israel is not appropriate for the students Hillel is targeting this time around — those, he said, whose main interest in going to Israel is “because it fits into winter break.”

That is why, he said, Hillel wanted to experiment by creating its own program and training its own counselors. The program has to be both fun and recreational, he said, while at the same time it “has to be an encounter” for these students who he believes are open to “opening their historic story.”

“We want to learn all we can from this pilot project,” Joel said. “It’s vitally important that we be able to make mistakes.”

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