Most students still want free Israel trip


NEW YORK, Dec. 5 (JTA) – Despite fears of a “mass exodus,” only two campus Hillels and a handful of individuals have dropped out of Birthright Israel trips since the Thanksgiving holiday, say officials with the organization.

Birthright – which was launched amid much fanfare last winter – plans to send 10,000 Jewish young adults on free 10-day trips to Israel this winter, starting Dec. 23.

Most of the participants are North American college students.

The trips, funded by the Israeli government, Jewish federations and individual philanthropists, have been widely credited with sparking Jewish interest among young people with weak or no Jewish identities.

But after violence escalated in the Middle East this fall and threatened what remains of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, trip organizers worried that potential participants – like many tourists – would decide to avoid Israel this year.

Indeed, in the weeks before Thanksgiving, several hundred participants either turned down the trip offer or canceled their acceptances.

They were replaced from a wait list of 17,000 people. Participants are selected by lottery.

More recently, two Jewish student campus organizations – one serving Amherst and Smith Colleges in Massachusetts and the other serving Duke University in North Carolina – canceled their Birthright trips.

And Stanford University decided to reduce its delegation for the winter and send more students on a spring Birthright trip, according to Richard Joel, president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

As a result of the cancellations, Hillel, which had planned to bring 4,000 of the 8,000 participants from the North America, is now expecting to bring between 3,300 and 3,500.

The slots for the Amherst, Smith and Duke students – fewer than 100 in total – will be given to other campuses, said Marlene Post, Birthright’s North American chairwoman.

Nathan Margalit, the religious adviser for the Smith-Amherst Hillel, or Jewish student organization, said the risk-management professional for the colleges told him that because of a U.S. State Department advisory against travel to Israel, “we couldn’t go ahead with it because of the liability.”

Unlike most Hillels, the Smith-Amherst one is not independent, but is part of the colleges and accountable to their administrations, said Margalit.

“Everyone was very disappointed,” said Margalit, noting that 17 students were scheduled for the trip.

“The students who have chosen to go are top-notch students who would have come back and generated all that energy into Jewish life,” he said.

Hillel staff at Duke could not be reached for comment.

Beyond the college cancellations, few individuals have opted out since Thanksgiving, even though Dec. 2 was the last day for many to do so and still have their $250 deposit returned.

The deposit, which ensures a spot on the trip, is returned at the end of the trip or if a participant cancels three weeks in advance.

With many college students home over the Thanksgiving holiday, Birthright organizers had feared that nervous parents would try to persuade their children not to go to Israel.

However, said Post, the only post-Thanksgiving cancellations have been “five here, two there, one here,” compared to the hundreds that occurred before the holiday.

It is not clear why the pre-Thanksgiving predictions did not come true.

Families may have felt reassured by Birthright’s promise to intensify security, say some. Or, with the battle over the U.S. presidential elections dominating media coverage, they may not have followed the situation in Israel as closely as before.

“We as a country have been so tied up with elections and what’s going on, that Israel has not appeared on page 1, 2 or 3 of the newspapers,” said one Birthright official. “We’re seeing basically a lack of negative PR.”

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