Requests Swamp Israel Trip Program


Birthright Israel has received many more applications for its upcoming trips than it has spaces available. Approximately 14,000 young Jews applied for 8,000 spots in the program’s spring/summer trips this year in just the first 12 hours of registration Feb. 8.

The organization provides free trips to Israel for Jews ages 18 to 26. In the six years since its founding, Birthright has brought 98,000 people from 45 countries to Israel. The upcoming trip will include the program’s 100,000th participant.

“The level of demand is unprecedented and well exceeds our financial capability to accommodate the majority of those who currently wish to go on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips,” said Susie Gelman, Birthright Israel Foundation chair.

Taglit is the Hebrew name for the program.

“As Taglit-Birthright Israel grows rapidly and develops into a community-supported organization, we hope that our friends will support us in enabling more young Jews to participate in the Taglit-Birthright Israel experience, so that we can send the 100,000th participant and plan for the next 100,000,” Gelman said.

Avi Chai Grant Saves Birthright


A new grant of $7 million to Birthright Israel is breathing new life into the cash-strapped program, allowing Birthright to more than double the number of slots available for this summer’s tours.

The future of Birthright — which provides free trips to Israel for Diaspora young adults — was thrown into question recently as it became clear that its sponsors were not going to meet their financial commitments to the organization for 2004.

The major drop in funding came from the Israeli government, which reduced its funding for Birthright to a token amount for 2004 due to budget constraints. That prompted Birthright to reduce its available slots this summer to 3,500.

Now, with a new "challenge grant" of $7 million from the Avi Chai Foundation, Birthright and Avi Chai are hoping the group of 14 Jewish philanthropists who helped launch Birthright will match the Avi Chai grant.

Already, the group has notified its trip providers that it will now be able to bring 8,200 young Jews to Israel this summer.

Avi Chai officials said foundation members felt compelled to contribute the money to make up for the Israeli government’s drastic slash in Birthright funding.

"[We] believed it was unfortunate for the program to have to suffer a significant reduction in the number of participants just as Birthright was reaching full strength," the foundation said in a news statement.

Birthright officials reacted to the announcement with delight.

"We are extraordinarily grateful to Avi Chai, in whom we have great respect," said philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, one of Birthright’s founders and principal funders.

Steinhardt said the foundation agreed to become a Birthright philanthropic partner and is planning to give an additional $1 million per year for each of the next five years of the program.

When Birthright was launched, the three major sponsors of the program — the Israeli government, a group of Jewish philanthropists and the North American Jewish federation system — agreed to divide evenly the funding for the $210 million, five-year program.

Each party originally committed to contributing $70 million for the first five years. However, citing severe budget constraints, Israel cut its funding this year to $400,000, from $9 million the previous year.

Compounding Birthright’s financial woes, the federation system now plans to pay a total of only $35 million, of which it is currently short $4 million to $5 million, officials say. As a result, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the overseas partner of the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, has increased its contribution to the program to make up for the shortfall.

Since the program began, it has brought some 60,000 Diaspora youth between the ages of 18 and 26 to Israel for free 10-day guided trips of the country. For many, it is their first trip to Israel. Only youth who never before have been on a peer tour of the country are eligible to participate.

The ambitious program has been hailed as a revolutionary way to help infuse Diaspora youth with a strong Jewish identity, a sense of connection to Israel and the drive to connect with their own Jewish communities back home.

Before Tuesday’s announcement of the $7 million grant, Birthright’s future seemed uncertain.

Although Birthright took 10,000 young Jews to Israel this winter, including 8,000 from North America, the program was forced to turn away thousands more who were eligible because of a funding crunch, program officials said.

In its statement, Avi Chai said it wants to be a partner with the philanthropists backing Birthright Israel for the next five years and said it was awaiting word from the Israeli government on future commitment to the program.

Avi Chai also said foundation members hoped that the Jewish federations in North America and Europe would fulfill their pledge to provide one-third of the program’s funding.

Avi Chai is a private foundation that funds educational programs and describes itself as "committed to the perpetuation of the Jewish people, Judaism and the centrality of the State of Israel to the Jewish people."

Established in 1984, it has offices in New York and Jerusalem.

JTA staff writer Rachel Pomerance in New York contributed to this report.

Embracing Diaspora


The old-time Zionist religion had it that the only good Diaspora Jew was the one who made aliyah and settled in the ancestral land.

Now, after decades of inner-focused effort to build up the new land and survive, the Jewish state is rediscovering its distant relatives and, what’s more, is ready to accept them, on their own terms, as equals.

Stretching out a hand to the brethren abroad has become a sudden Israeli cottage industry. For the first time, a cabinet minister for “World Jewish Affairs” has been appointed. Senior politicians and think tanks vie to come up with imaginative plans to redefine relations between the world’s two largest Jewish communities in Israel and the United States.

In a reversal of fortunes, Israel is putting up $100 million to support an educational program for Diaspora youth through the “Birthright Israel” program.

Not least, Israel’s foreign ministry has made a major commitment in staff and money for new outreach programs, most notably the Young Jewish Leadership Diplomatic Seminar.

The inaugural run of the 25-day summer seminar has concluded and the newly coined “diplomats,” most in their twenties and hailing from 18 countries, have returned from Israel to their hometowns.

Among the 34 participants were two young professional women from Los Angeles, who came home with a new appreciation and knowledge of Israel — both its strengths and its unresolved problems.

Neither Lauren Rutkin, 29, or Marjan Keypour, 28, arrived at the seminar as novices. Both had visited Israel twice before, and their jobs — Rutkin as associate director of the local AIPAC office, and Keypour as a staff member of the Anti-Defamation League’s community services department — inevitably have a Zionist component.

In that sense, they differ from most of their American peers, to whom the Jewish state is “not central, not terribly important,” said Rutkin.

Even for vacation trips, noted Keypour, most American twentysomethings “want a paradise atmosphere, not the war zone depicted on their television.”

But even for the relatively knowledgeable participants from Los Angeles, the daily dawn-to-dusk sessions were intensive learning experiences.

They heard, and questioned, an array of experts on Israel’s foreign relations, the peace process, the country’s Arabs, Hebrew poetry, movies, theater, economics, media, jurisprudence, academic life, environment, urban sprawl, religion and more.

“There was no sugar coating of existing problems,” said Rutkin, and Keypour agreed that “they presented the facts and allowed us to draw our own conclusions.”

The two women did encounter the old-line Zionist perspective in the person of the formidable President Ezer Weizman, and felt some resentment at his insistence that Jewish life in the Diaspora was meaningless.

As often happens in such settings, the two Angelenas learned as much about differing Jewish viewpoints from their fellow participants from different countries as from the lecturers.

“I found out that such terms as ‘Conservative’ or ‘Reform’ Judaism mean different things in different countries,” said Keypour. “Religious pluralism was the number one topic of debate.”

What both women missed were personal contacts with Israelis of their own age, and Keypour added that the program was a mite too cerebral.

Future participants, particularly if first-time visitors to Israel, “should experience the country also on a more spiritual and emotional level… to smell the flowers and touch the stones of the Western Wall,” Keypour said.

But overall, Rutkin said, she returned feeling “more connected with Israel and the Jewish people, and energized in my commitment.”

She will apply her experiences to encourage the next generation of young leaders to spend time in Israel, starting with her three sisters. On a personal note, she has decided to celebrate a belated bat mitzvah in November.

Keypour, who arrived in this country 11 years ago from Iran, said she would focus her efforts on the young people in her own community, whose indifferent attitudes toward Israel mirrors those of other young Jews in Los Angeles. She also plans to talk to the Sinai Temple New Leadership, on whose board she serves.

Arthur Lenk, consul for communications and public affairs at the local Israel consulate-general, sees the seminar as a partial antidote to young American Jews, who view Israel as “just another country. “

“On our side, it has become clear that Israel does not solely exist for its own citizens, but has no less a responsibility for Jews everywhere,” said Lenk, who himself made aliyah from the United States.

“It’s part of Israel’s maturation process that we can say, sure we want you to settle here, but if you don’t come, that doesn’t make you any less of a Jew,” he observed.

Lenk, who interviewed 15 applicants for this year’s pilot program said that the feedback had been positive enough to plan for a similar seminar next summer.