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All eyes on Birthright follow-up


JERUSALEM, Jan. 18 (JTA) — The Jewish world is going to keep a very close watch on 6,000 young adults.

A lot of money, hope and skepticism have been channeled toward them and their first-ever trips to Israel, which took place in December and January.

Critics and supporters of Birthright Israel will watch what participants do next and try to measure as best they can whether the ambitious scheme to foster Jewish continuity will see a return on its investment.

Jewish philanthropist Charles Bronfman, co-creator of Birthright Israel, said that bringing in high school students — originally envisioned as part of the program — might have to wait.

“Suddenly, the game has changed, which we never thought it would,” Bronfman said during an interview in Jerusalem. “It looks like it’s going to be more of a college game than a high school game as far as Birthright Israel is concerned.”

Michael Papo, executive vice president of Birthright Israel North America, said college kids are more likely to travel on their own. The method of bringing them over, and the educational programs involved, would have to change to accommodate 15- to 18-year-olds. He doesn’t expect high school students to be sent over until 2001 or 2002.

So far, there are no definite plans for sending over the next group of Birthright Israel participants. A decision may be made in the next couple of weeks on whether there will be a summer program.

As most of the young Jews returning from their trips show their pictures and souvenirs of Israel to their friends and family and get ready for their next semester of college, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is making use of its database of the 9,000 young Jews who applied for the Birthright Israel trips. Because of the high response rate, Hillel conducted a lottery to choose its 3,000 participants.

Richard Joel, Hillel’s president and international director, said local chapters now have a duty to keep in touch with all the young Jews on the trip, but no decision has been made yet on what type of scientific survey will be conducted to measure the impact of Birthright Israel.

Joel said the first measure of its success would be whether the students will plan another, longer trip to Israel. Also, he said, he’d like to see “some manifestation of a more serious and passionate involvement with their Jewishness,” even if they just contact the Hillel professionals they met on the bus.

He said the Jewish community has always measured its success by affiliation. But he said the Jewish world is learning that it’s not about affiliation, but participation: “People can be Jewish if they ‘do Jewish’ not if they ‘join Jewish.’ “

Bronfman said he needs to get some data on this first trip both to answer the program’s critics — who say, among other things, that the money would be better spent on Jewish education in the United States — and to see how to tailor the program in the future.

He said Birthright Israel will spend a lot of time, energy and money on research to follow up, especially because local communities, philanthropists and the State of Israel are being asked to spend quite a bit on the program. They want to see what kinds of results they are getting.

“We’re going to have to follow the people who come on these trips for quite a long time.”

For Bronfman, though, the next phase is not whether, but how, to continue.

“The next dream is that the trip to Israel for Diaspora kids becomes a part of their rite of passage into adulthood,” Bronfman said. “Therefore the new dream is that every Diaspora youngster will have the opportunity and that most of them will take the trip to Israel. It will just be a part of growing up.”

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