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Birthright hopes to send largest numbers yet

NEW YORK, Aug. 27 (JTA) — Despite the drop in tourism to Israel after nearly a year of Israeli- Palestinian violence, one Israel experience program hopes to increase the number of young Jews it sends to Israel this winter.

Through aggressive marketing and an array of special-interest trips, Birthright Israel hopes to draw 10,000 young Jews this winter on its free trips to the Jewish state.

Whether that’s a viable goal is up for debate, and even some Birthright alumni — who for the most part have given the program rave reviews — are skeptical that many people who have never been to Israel before will elect to go during a period of frequent terror attacks.

When Birthright Israel burst onto the scene two years ago, it had to turn away thousands of people vying for limited spots.

Even last fall, when registration began for that year’s trips, it looked like Birthright would repeat its success. The program, which aims to foster Jewish identity among uninvolved Jews aged 18-26, attracted 17,000 would-be travelers, but had room only for 10,000.

The outbreak of the Palestinian uprising last September, however, made many people skittish. Thousands of registrants canceled and Birthright was able to send only 8,653 people — even after depleting its waiting list.

That was an increase from the 6,041 who went the previous winter, but lower than the target number. Another 5,700 young adults went in May and June of this year, down from the 7,562 initially planned.

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, Birthright’s executive vice president in North America, acknowledges that recruitment won’t be easy this year.

“My kids are saying, ‘are you crazy going over there?’ ” Zimmerman said, referring to the concern that his own grown children express about security issues.

No one has been injured by terrorism or other violence while on a Birthright trip. Like last year, security measures this year will be intense: Birthright will review itineraries daily with the Israeli Ministry of Education and will work closely on security matters with the government and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Unstructured free time to explore and shop will be sharply curtailed, particularly in urban centers. In addition, Birthright is creating a database of itineraries so parents can locate their child’s bus at any moment.

Despite the added headaches of security and recruitment, there has been virtually no public discussion of cancelling or postponing Birthright trips until the situation calms down.

The question arose after the June 1 suicide bombing outside a Tel Aviv nightclub and again after the Aug. 9 suicide bombing at a Jerusalem pizzeria, but “the feeling was that now more than ever it’s essential to be there and keep the trips going,” Zimmerman said.

If “you lose the sophomore now or the junior now, you’re not going to have them in another year,” Zimmerman said. “Later they could be going to medical school or Cancun.”

Canceling trips would have economic consequences for Israel, and often is perceived as a betrayal of the Jewish state. When the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations canceled all youth trips to Israel this summer — and when the U.S. delegation to the Maccabiah games almost canceled — they drew sharp criticism from Israelis and other Jewish groups.

Giving up Birthright trips would “hand Arafat the victory he needs,” Zimmerman said. “It would be the final nail in the tourism coffin.”

Canceling also could stymie Birthright’s future. Birthright needs to maintain its momentum if it is to survive over the long haul, Zimmerman said.

Putting the trips on hold or reducing their size could jeopardize the financial support Israel gives to Birthright, and could push the program off North American Jewry’s radar screen, Zimmerman said.

“It’s the hardest thing in the world to energize the North American Jewish community,” he said. “You drop this, how do you get it moving again?”

So how to attract 10,000 young Jews at a time when many consider Israel a war zone?

Birthright hopes that aggressive marketing, word of mouth and several special-interest trips will help.

Among the new offerings is a cycling trip, one for deaf Jews, a sports trip and one in which participants learn Israel’s history firsthand by traveling with veterans of Israel’s wars.

Leonard Saxe, director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Jewish Studies — which has been researching the impact of the Birthright experience — said that Birthright attracted slightly older participants last year compared to its first year, and that trend is expected to continue.

Upperclassmen and college graduates don’t rely as much on their parents’ approval and may see visiting Israel now as an adventure, Saxe said.

Birthright’s recruitment also may benefit from the recommendations of alumni, Saxe said.

“The more people who go on Birthright programs, the more people who talk about how safe it is, then recruiting gets easier over time,” he said. “I don’t think the question will be can they get people to register or apply, but depending on what’s happening a few months from now, will they show up at the airport?”

Some people who have registered for this winter’s trip, like 26-year-old Brian Schultz of Seattle, have warned that they may pull out later.

“I’m definitely apprehensive,” Schultz said.

While he is “committed to going unless something causes me not to,” Schultz said, he is watching the situation closely and will consult with Israeli friends as the trip draws closer.

Birthright alumni offered mixed views about the program’s recruitment prospects this year.

Robyn Weisman, a sophomore at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said Birthright will have “a big challenge just getting past what’s in the papers.”

Weisman, who went on a Birthright trip last winter and loved it, said she plans to help recruit on her campus this year and noted that the program needs “to get more students out there, assuring people.”

Even if Birthright assures them that Israel will be safe, some prospective participants may be put off by the strict security measures and limited itineraries.

Saul Daiell, a Binghamton University junior who went on a Birthright trip this summer shortly after the Tel Aviv bombing, said he enjoyed the trip, felt safe and would recommend it to others

But, he noted, “I felt I didn’t really get to see Israel in terms of the full scope.”

Instead of spending a lot of time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, his group substituted activities like canoeing on the Jordan River and taking part in archaeological digs.

“They didn’t let us out at night, and we weren’t able to get to other parts of Jerusalem or urban areas,” Daiell said.

Asked what Birthright could do to recruit people this winter, Daiell said “it basically all depends on the situation in Israel, because that’s what people hear about in the news, and parents are keeping a close eye on that.”

BIRTHRIGHT TURNS TO SPECIALTY TRIPS

Steve Rubin has packed a lot of adventures into his 22 years.

He has hiked Latin American volcanoes and scaled Italy’s Mount Etna, the tallest volcano in Europe.

He has trekked through the Sahara Desert, gone hang gliding over the Swiss Alps and journeyed through Egypt with a friend.

So when he learned of the opportunity to go biking in Israel — for free — under the auspices of the Birthright Israel program, he was eager to sign up.

“The idea of it not just being some bus tour totally made it intriguing,” said Rubin, who works as a digital strategy consultant in Chicago.

Birthright Israel has set itself an ambitious goal of recruiting 10,000 young Jews to go to Israel this winter — at a time when many people regard the Jewish state as a war zone.

The group always works with a variety of organizations that coordinate the actual trips, including Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the religious movements and the Jewish community center movement, among others.

But this year, in an effort to appeal to a wider audience and engage Jews who might not otherwise consider going to Israel, Birthright also sought groups offering special-interest trips, such as the cycling one.

“We’re trying to appeal to more active, outdoor-oriented Jewish youth — that’s a full market not being tapped, yet there are tons of Jews going on cycling and outdoor touring trips” elsewhere, said Avi Green, who is coordinating the bike trip. “It’s a traditional Israel experience, going to all the sites you’d expect, but moving around the country by bike.”

The trip will include cycling along the Burma Road — which served as an alternate route to Jerusalem during the War of Independence — biking alongside the Dead Sea, in the Galilee, Golan Heights and the Negev, and standard sightseeing in Jerusalem.

Brian Schultz, 26, of Seattle, signed up because he is “a big fan of activities outdoors” and “thought this would be a pretty cool way to see Israel.”

It is not clear how much follow-up the program will offer after the trip, however. While the 10-day trips get rave reviews from participants and appear to strengthen young people’s connections to Judaism and Israel, critics frequently note that Birthright has done little to help alumni stay involved in Jewish life once they return home.

Campus-based trips under Birthright’s auspices, in which students travel with their classmates — such as those run by Hillel and those under the auspices of university Chabad houses — generally have been credited with better follow-up than trips run by national organizers like the Chicago-based Israel By Bike, which is coordinating the cycling trip.

Asked about follow-up, Green said he would run an Internet discussion group so participants could stay in contact after the trip.

In addition to the cycling trip, other new Birthright programs include one for deaf Jews, a sports trip run by the Jewish community center movement, and Machal, a trip in which participants will learn about Israel’s history by traveling with Canadian veterans of Israel’s wars.

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