Behind the Headlines: Birthright Project’s Challenge is Getting More Jews to Israel
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Behind the Headlines: Birthright Project’s Challenge is Getting More Jews to Israel

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Charles Bronfman unwrapped plans last week for “a gift from the Jewish people” that has given a major boost to those in the business of sending young Jews to Israel.

The Birthright Israel initiative, announced during the UJA Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Jerusalem, would create a $300 million fund to provide a first visit to Israel to every Jew aged 15 to 26.

“It’s an opportunity for many Jews to find themselves, to identify with the State of Israel and to live meaningful Jewish lives,” Bronfman said at a news conference announcing the project, which will be sponsored by a coalition of Jewish philanthropists, the Israeli government and local communities around the world.

The question for many Israel trip providers is whether the new campaign – – spearheaded by Bronfman, a Seagram’s executive, and Wall Street mogul Michael Steinhardt — will succeed in reaching new constituencies of young Jews who until now have opted out of the Israel experience in droves.

Of the total of 350,000 North American Jews in that age range, only about 3 percent go to Israel. And over the past decade, the numbers have remained fairly flat, according to Israel Experience, Inc., an umbrella service for Israel programs that will serve as the Birthright Israel’s “franchise” in North America.

Promotional literature for Birthright Israel, printed on thick, parchment- colored paper, quotes Bronfman as saying, “Regardless of nationality, economic status or denomination, every Jewish youth will be eligible to participate in a trip that will change their lives. This is a gift from our generation to our children and grandchildren.”

Currently that gift is estimated at about $1,500 per child, an amount that would cover round-trip airfare and what it now costs for a 10-day educational program in Israel.

Birthright Israel is by no means the first such opportunity offered to Jewish youth. Synagogues, youth movements, local federations and the United Jewish Appeal have for years offered scholarships to put an Israel trip within the grasp of many interested young Jews.

“There are more scholarships than there are takers,” lamented Sam Fisher, international director of B’nai Brith Youth Organization, which offers a variety of Israel experience programs that average about 500 teen-age participants each summer.

That number has not increased significantly in recent years, despite the communal push to send more youth to Israel.

“People don’t go not because they don’t have the money,” said Fisher.

Rather, he and other Israel trip providers say, parents and young people must see an Israel experience as a priority in a world of travel possibilities.

“Some people are clearly not interested,” said Karen Benyoseph, director of Youth to Israel Programs at the Jewish Federation of the North Shore in Salem, Mass. “Their kids are going to France, not to Israel.”

But Benyoseph said her organization has succeeded in nearly tripling attendance in summer Israel trips in an effort that Birthright Israel might encourage other communities to use as a model.

Over the past four years, the North Shore federation has been “investing in kids,” Benyoseph explained, by providing full scholarships for approved four- week trips targeted at Jewish high school sophomores.

Each trip is accompanied by a year-round schedule of orientation and follow-up for participants and their parents — a component of Birthright Israel’s planning that would be the responsibility of local communities.

Benyoseph said the $4,000 subsidy, supported by the federation and matching funds from a local philanthropist, made the trips more attractive to parents – – even those who could afford it — and put more decision-making power in the teens’ hands.

Many Israel trip providers see appealing to the participants, rather than parents, as one of Birthright Israel’s most promising aspects.

“From our perspective, Birthright Israel is going to enable us to reach a constituency we haven’t been able to reach until now — college students,” said Rabbi Allan Smith, director of the Reform movement’s youth division, which sends between 1,000 and 1,200 high school students to Israel each summer.

“Next spring break we’ve got an offer you can’t refuse,” Smith said in a mock pitch to prospective participants. “How about going to Israel? We’ll pay the bill.”

In fact, because most high school summer Israel tours are four to six weeks long, college students on spring or winter break might best be able to take advantage of the 10-day subsidy offered by Birthright Israel.

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life last year inaugurated its own Birthright Israel Initiative, which organizes first-time educational vacations to Israel for New York-area college students for $500.

Hillel’s director of development for international program, Keith Krivitzky, said the hefty subsidy helped the group its first crop of 90 students. This year, when the program is being replicated in other cities, such as San Diego, Denver and Philadelphia, Krivitzky says there are waiting lists and a roster of 190 participants.

But more than the money, Krivitzky points to a new attitude as a key factor in the fledgling program’s initial success.

The increase in interests indicates that the program did indeed “generate excitement” among groups of students from the same campus. Krivitzky hopes such excitement will reverberate among the trips’ participants by bringing students previously unaffiliated with Jewish campus life into sustained contact with Hillel.

Generating a buzz is one thing that the kind of funding Birthright Israel promises can do.

For “some parents and college students, the apathy is so great, Israel is not even on the radar screen,” said Birthright Israel’s executive vice president, Michael Papo.

A new marketing campaign would send out the signal that going to Israel is “a cool thing, a neat thing, a fun thing, a moving thing, an educational thing, a Jewish thing,” Papo said.

Merav Yaron, program director of the Israel Center of San Francisco, said that if advertised well in schools and universities, and by rabbis and educators, Birthright Israel “will be an amazing program.”

In the meantime, she has already begun a promotional campaign on a small scale.

When people call her office, she said, she tells them: “In two years, you can fly for free!”

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