Birthright Israel, the unprecedented offer of a free 10-day trip to Israel for 6,000 Jewish college students worldwide, has met with such a huge response that three of the 14 organizations sponsoring trips have stopped taking applications.
Funding for the January trip is available for 5,000 students from North America but Moshe Margolin, vice president of educational services for Birthright Israel, North America, said that based on the response to date, "we will significantly exceed 15,000 applications."
Michael Papo, the group’s executive vice president, pointed out that "previous research had shown that Israel was not on the radar screen of many Jewish college students."
"There were stories of [Jewish] federations literally trying to hand out free tickets [to Israel] and not being successful. Yet we believed that if we did a good enough job of marketing, the product would sell itself. We are clearly gratified by the response," he said.The trip was advertised on college campuses, in newspapers and on radio.
Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Life (the central Jewish group on many college campuses) has been allotted nearly 3,000 of the 4,000 available seats in the United States. Since opening its Web site, www.Israel2000.org, on Sept. 10, more than 7,300 students have applied to go, according to Hillel international director Richard Joel.
The trip is open to Jews aged 18-26 who have never been on an organized, peer group educational trip to Israel. But Joel said his organization is primarily reaching out to those who have not been active in Jewish community life.
"We want to use this as a test to see what happens if you take young people who are not Jewishly involved and send them to Israel for 10 days with their classmates where they will meet [specially trained] Hillel professionals," he said.
Joel said that in addition to being a "great winter vacation," the trip would allow participants to "form a community on campus that will linger, feel a pride in being Jewish because they would be encountering Israel, and hopefully trigger some Jewish passion.
"They will be going over the whole country, visiting Masada and nightclubs and high-tech businesses. We have also built in serious free time for them to wander and explore places on their own. We are not going to drive them from morning till night, plying them with Jewish experiences. There has to be time for them to chill."
Hopefully, Joel added, participants would return from Israel with a "desire to return for a longer, serious encounter and have a desire to continue their Jewish journey here in the States."
Due to the overwhelming response, Joel said each of the 80 college campuses offering the trip will hold a lottery next week to select which students will go. A second, smaller lottery will be held for the Jewish activists on campus who also have never been on an organized peer tour of Israel. Papo said similar lotteries would be held by the other sponsoring organizations.
Those not chosen will be given a "priority voucher," said Joel. "Should another trip be offered again, they will be first in line to go."
Margolin of Birthright Israel said no decision has been made on when the next trip would be held, but late spring is being discussed. Allowing students to apply the gift to longer, summer programs in Israel, such as a four-week summer course, also is under consideration.
"We would give them the round-trip ticket and transfer money directly to the organization that is conducting the program," he said.
Margolin added that trips this summer would be offered for a limited number of high school students from select communities. The free trips would be offered to all high-school students in the future, once funding is secure.
The trips are to be paid for by Jewish federations in the United States, the government of Israel and philanthropists, but to date only philanthropists have made a commitment to the $300 million annual project.