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Birthright Backers: New ways needed to fund trips

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JERUSALEM, Jan. 4 (JTA) — Jewish communities must start thinking about new means of funding to sustain the Birthright Israel program, which sponsors free Israel trips for Jewish students, according to the philanthropists who have supported the trips until now.

In 2004, the program will send 25,000 people to Israel, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt said at a news conference in Jerusalem. “If we are to succeed in our dream, we have to not only inspire our communities but to generate more philanthropic support.”

The five-year program is financed by $70 million from 14 Jewish philanthropists, $70 million from the Israeli government and $70 million from world Jewish communities. The philanthropists — most prominent among them Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman — will withdraw their support for Birthright after five years.

Bronfman said the time is coming when the Jewish community would have to address the question of “when does” the philanthropists’ “responsibility end and somebody else’s responsibility start.”

The comments were made as 5,000 Jewish students from 21 countries traveled around Israel in the first round of this year’s Birthright project. A total of 14,000 students will participate in Birthright programs through this summer, compared with 8,000 last year.

The sudden influx of visitors gave a temporary boost to Israel’s tourism industry, which has been undergoing a crisis since the violent conflict with the Palestinians began in late September.

Bronfman said getting the program off the ground amid the current crisis was a far more complicated task than last year, when the program debuted.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “This year, it’s in a way a sort of a miracle” that there will be a “full house” of Birthright participants.

Shimshon Shoshani, chief executive of Birthright Israel, said the program has increased security in reaction to the crisis. Every Birthright bus must check in daily with the program’s situation room. The program also gets formal approval from the Israeli army and police for all field trips.

The crisis has also created opportunities for students to get a firsthand view of Israeli politics and the issues the country faces.

“Many Israeli politicians will take part by appearing in front of the groups,” Shoshani said.

Steinhardt said he was with one group at the Western Wall during a protest led by Israel’s chief rabbis against ceding sovereignty on the Temple Mount.

Students watched in awe as hundreds of protesters began to blow shofars simultaneously in the shadow of the Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites.

“It was, for them, an extraordinary experience,” he said.

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