Birthright Israel, the ambitious and controversial project to provide a free 10-day trip to Israel for diaspora youth, is planning to send as many as 7,000 college students in January and February: even as organizers await the financial backing they counted on for the $300 million enterprise.
The program is to be jointly funded with $100 million contributions over five years from the government of Israel, philanthropists and local Jewish federations. Originally intended to also include high-school students, organizers said "timing and operational logistics" made it impossible to include them next year.
Michael Steinhardt, a Wall Street money manager and co-creator of the project with Charles Bronfman, co-chairman of the Seagram Co. in Montreal, said the two expect to review the program next week with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Barak’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, had promised to fight to include the $100 million in the budget, but Barak has not had a chance to address it, according to Bobby Brown, Netanyahu’s diaspora affairs adviser who is working with the transition team on diaspora affairs.
Brown said he has reviewed Birthright Israel with Barak’s staff and that Barak knows of the program. His "initial reaction is positive," Brown said, but the prime minister is not familiar with the financing.
When Barak met with editors of American Jewish publications during his trip last month to the United States, he spoke positively about Birthright Israel but said details of financing had yet to be worked out.
Michael Papo, executive director of Birthright Israel, North America, said no Jewish federations have yet made any commitments to the project because "six months ago, when their budget process started, we were not in the position to come up with specific requests." As a result, he said, formal requests will be made to federations beginning this fall.
Steinhardt, in a phone interview from Geneva, Switzerland, said he and Bronfman were also still lining up contributions from philanthropists.
"None of these things have been completed," he said of the fund-raising effort, "but there has been substantial progress in all areas. And the response in terms of the number of participants [interested in taking the trip] has been extraordinary. We have a lot of work ahead of us. It is not a done deal yet, but I certainly expect it to be."
Steinhardt has acknowledged that there has been reluctance on the part of some federations to support the project. A persistent criticism of similar trips is that they have failed to make a lasting impression on teenagers. Some federations were even reassessing how they could make this experience more meaningful.
"An advisory committee will be established in the next week or two that will include representatives of federations large and small to consider ways of working with Birthright, including ways to collaborate financially," said Stephen Solender, acting president of United Jewish Communities.
Papo said there is enough money on hand from philanthropists to launch the project on time in January by sending between 6,000 and 7,000 college youngsters to Israel during their winter break. Steinhardt said 5,000 of them were expected to come from the United States and Canada.
Ivy Abrams, vice president of marketing for Birthright Israel, North America, said the first trip is slated to leave Dec. 29 under the auspices of Hillel. About half of the trips from the U.S. would be run by Hillel, Steinhardt said.
Abrams said college students could learn which trips are approved for the program by calling its toll-free number, (888) 99-ISRAEL during business hours, or by logging on to its Web site, www.israelexperience.org. Once they are ready to sign up, they must do so through the program provider. There are expected to be programs provided by each Jewish denomination, as well as nondenominational groups such as Hillel.
"To be eligible, a program must meet certain standards," said Abrams. "They will all need to have a peer-group component in which the participants meet Israeli peers. Each program provider will develop its own itinerary, but each will make sure that participants see the major historical and cultural sites of the country."
To be eligible for the free trip, youngsters must be between the ages of 18 and 26 and must never have been on a peer group educational trip to Israel.
Airfare and all expenses in Israel will be provided free, including the hotels many of the groups are expected to stay in. Abrams said students will only have to bring money for gifts they may wish to buy.
Gideon Mark, director of marketing for Birthright Israel, said there are plans to eventually expand the project to include high-school students aged 15 to 17. He said the concentration initially is on college students because only about 1,000 of them travel to Israel this year, compared with about 24,000 high-schoolers worldwide. Of those, Mark said it is estimated that 12,000 to 15,000 are first-timers.
He said it is assumed that there are a "huge number of college students who are unaffiliated and have no connection to the Jewish world. We would like to make them a part of that world."
Everyone who comes will be required to attend pre- and post-program meetings. Mark said the latter is most important.
"It will hopefully prevent those who come back from Israel from losing their contacts with the Jewish world," he explained. "In the past, we detected that many of those who went as high-school students did not show up in the Jewish community again until their son’s brit milah or their daughter’s bat mitzvah. We would like to encourage them to continue to play an active role in their own Jewish community."