When it was launched in late 1999, amid much fanfare, birthright israel offered every Jew 18 to 26 a free, 10-day trip to Israel if they had never been there on an educational trip with their peers. But now, after nearly 50,000 Jews have taken advantage of the offer, restrictions are being quietly imposed.
Organizers are now telling those who are in a "full-time, exclusively Jewish studies program that they are not eligible," according to Gideon Mark, the program’s international director of marketing.
"We have been trying as much as possible to dedicate the funds we have to less affiliated and connected Jewish young adults," Mark said, adding that this new restriction is in keeping with that objective.
The new policy was adopted in July at a meeting of the organization’s steering committee, said Simon Klarfeld, its executive vice president.
He said the decision was made during a review of the "makeup of participants compared with the original vision of the founders to reach out to the largely unaffiliated."
Marlene Post, president of birthright israel, said that although the steering committee did not adopt a policy, it left it to birthright’s CEO, Shimshon Shoshani, to develop and implement one. "This practice will be reviewed following the winter trips in February and a decision will be made for the summer trips that will become policy," she said. This interim policy would be considered "a failure if we do not get enough kids." She said the problem stemmed from the fact that young people planning to spend a year at yeshivas in Israel used the trip as a way to get there and asked for an open return ticket under the ruse of wanting to visit relatives.
"In looking to the future, the committee looked at different ways to prioritize [enrollment] and to encourage those who are in the less affiliated and engaged category," Klarfeld said. "One way of doing this was to look not only at affiliation but the chosen behavior of this adult population. Those who have chosen as adults to participate full-time in exclusively Jewish studies clearly have expressed values and behaviors that show they are far more affiliated and identify with a Jewish commitment and Jewish tradition."
He stressed that students who major in Jewish studies in college are still eligible because they take other courses as well, such as in the arts and sciences. Only if they immerse themselves in Jewish studies exclusively are they ineligible, Klarfeld said.
The birthright Israel Web site spells it out this way: "Students registered full time in exclusively Jewish Studies programs (in other words, no secular subjects are in your curriculum) in any institute of higher learning, including Jewish teacher training programs, Jewish Studies programs (not including Jewish Studies major or minor candidates), rabbinical programs, yeshivot/seminaries, Jewish communal service programs and the like are not eligible for the birthright israel gift."
That paragraph is included in a section called Frequently Asked Questions. But the main page of the Web site contains no such caveat. It says simply: "birthright Israel provides a gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26." It also makes reference to the organization’s belief that it is "every Jewish person’s birthright to visit Israel." Post said the wording on the Web site was being revised to remove references to rabbinical schools and making further clarifications.
And in an article about the organization last month in the Christian Science Monitor, no mention is made of the restriction. In fact, the paper wrote that the organization "has provided 18-to 26-year-olds who have never visited Israel with free, no-strings-attached, 10-day trips to the country."
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for one Orthodox group, Agudath Israel of America, said he knew of many yeshiva and seminary students who had visited Israel through birthright israel.
"I wouldn’t be able to gauge if their Jewish identity was strengthened," he said. Birthright officials said they had no figures on how many Jewish studies students had taken advantage of the trip.
"There will be many disappointed people out there [as a result of the new provision], but it is their prerogative to aim their funds where they think it will do the most good," Rabbi Shafran said. "Apparently they feel that those who are clearly committed already to a Jewish identity should not be a part of their program."
Klarfeld said his program is "not the answer to every single problem facing every young Jew, and it is not the answer to all things relating to Israel. We encourage other organizations to provide meaningful scholarships for those who want an Israel experience that would be relevant to them. … They are at a level that a 10-day introduction to Judaism is not appropriate and is not in the vision of the founders."
Earlier this year, the program discovered seven participants who were ineligible because they had previously been on a peer-sponsored trip. The organization said the group that they came with would be billed for their expenses and it issued an e-mail to all providers warning against further violations. The seven were caught during a passport inspection when they arrived.
The birthright israel program is a partnership between the State of Israel, local Jewish communities through their federations, and a group of major Jewish philanthropists led by Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman.