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Seeking to Boost Enrollment, 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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