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As Birthrighters Visit Israel, Worried About Program’s Future

On the stage where Yitzhak Rabin gave his final speech, young American Midwesterners and Israeli students from the Galilee sit together talking about where they were the night the Israeli prime minister was assassinated.

Clustered in a semicircle, the Midwesterners — participants of birthright israel — listen raptly as their Israeli peers tell of the confusion and horror that rocked the country after Rabin’s killing, when most of them were teenagers.

The Americans tell of hearing the news across the globe, on the way home from Hebrew school or basketball practice. They speak of feeling somewhat removed from the events, unable to visualize what life was really like in Israel.

That’s why they came here on birthright.

Now the Israelis and Americans are touring Israel together — hiking desert canyons, exploring kibbutzim in the north and praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.

But their tour — part of the birthright israel program, which offers young Jews free trips to Israel in an effort to boost Jewish pride and bolster bonds with Israel among Diaspora Jews — is facing serious funding problems.

Now in its fourth year, the ambitious $210 million program provides free 10-day tours of Israel to Diaspora Jews aged 18 to 26 who have never before visited the country on a peer trip. This winter, the program is bringing a record 11,000 young Diaspora Jews to Israel.

In total, some 60,000 Jewish youths from 35 countries have come to Israel on birthright since the launch of the program. About 10,000 Israeli soldiers and students have also participated.

The program was originally initiated for a five-year period, but with the hope it would be extended indefinitely.

“I love it here,” said Jillian Schutkin, 18, from Milwaukee. The trip “has given me a stronger connection to Israel. Israel is something that is always one of the things in the back of your head, but it is something I had to experience for myself.”

With questions about birthright’s future funding, organizers are worried about the program’s survival.

The program’s original $210 million price tag for five years was meant to be shared equally between three parties — a handful of Jewish philanthropists, the Israeli government and the North American Jewish federation system.

But with Israel’s deep recession, the Israeli government drastically cut its funding of the program this year, to $400,000 from $9 million the previous year.

In a phone interview from New York, Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky, said that after a lengthy debate in the Cabinet, the government had compromised and would fulfill its financial commitment after this year.

Meanwhile, the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group also has failed to get all of its members to allocate the amounts requested for the program.

“We don’t know where the government and federations are,” said Lynn Schusterman, who, along with her late husband, Charles, was one of the founders of birthright. They were among the philanthropists who each pledged $5 million to the five-year program.

Because of the drop in funding, far fewer participants will come on the trips this summer as compared with last year, said Gideon Mark, director of marketing for birthright in Israel.

“It will be the first time we will have to cut down on numbers — not because of security, not because of people not wanting to go to Israel, but for the first time it will be because we don’t have enough money,” Mark said.

He blamed the UJC for the shortfall.

“It has to do with federations in the United States. We don’t have as strong a problem in other communities in the world,” he said.

However, Stephen Hoffman, the president and CEO of the UJC said he believed the federations would come through and fulfill their commitment despite the challenges of fund raising during an economic downturn.

“We believe the federations are willing to continue to pay at about the rate that they are now paying. We believe that the Jewish Agency, who is our partner, is prepared to make a greater investment in the program,” he said.

Hoffman said that in a bid to lower costs, some federation officials have suggested participants pay for at least a portion of the trip. He also said it was not immediately clear when the federations would make allocations decisions regarding birthright.

“It can be done,” Hoffman said of funding the program. “It’s just a matter of how many kids and what is worth running the program for.”

Mark said, “We know we have to work hard to save the future of the program because we don’t know of a more successful program in the Jewish world today.”

Proponents of the program say that though it is costly, birthright is the best possible way to invest in the future of Diaspora-Israel relations and inspire young Jews to become active with their Jewish communities back home.

Many young Jews get their first real sense of Jewish peoplehood and pride on birthright, they say.

“I think strategically, without a strong bond to the Jewish people in the future, the Jewish state will be weakened,” Mark said. “It’s the beginning of a lifelong journey that starts here.”

Program officials also argue that birthright is a boon for the Israeli economy, since it has helped boost Israel’s tourist industry to the tune of some $90 million since the program’s launch.

Birthright has become the largest foreign tourism operator in the country since the start of the intifada, bolstering business for hotels, bus companies and tour guides, birthright officials maintained. Furthermore, they said, many birthright alumni return to Israel for extended stays.

In Tel Aviv, the group of Americans and Israeli students visited the Hall of Independence, where David Ben-Gurion declared the birth of the state of Israel in May 1948.

Sitting on wooden chairs similar to those hastily borrowed from the cafes of Tel Aviv for the occasion more than half a century ago, the birthright participants listen to the crackly recording of Ben-Gurion’s voice declaring that the Jewish state be called Israel.

“You are living again our history,” the museum guide tells the group.”By learning our history, you are visiting home.”

“There is such an energy here,” observes Alissa Boguslaw, 18, a freshman at the University of Minnesota and a native of St. Louis. “I can’t wait to come back.”

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