Officials of UJA-Federation of New York are taking a cautiously optimistic view of Birthright Israel, the $300 million effort to provide a free, 10-day trip to Israel for diaspora youth.
“We share their goals and look forward to the opportunity to sit down with the Birthright leadership to learn the specifics of the project as it evolves,” said John Ruskay, UJA-Federation’s chief operating officer.
Birthright Israel would expand on the work of UJA-Federation, he noted, which in the past four years has provided “substantial scholarship funds” to help pay the cost of trips to Israel for New York youth. Ruskay pointed out that UJA-Federation is partners with 65 area congregations that match UJA-Federation’s $250 subsidy per child for the Gift of Israel program. In addition, UJA-Federation provides other scholarships for trips to Israel based on need and merit.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 70 high school students received Gift of Israel scholarships and more than 200 others received merit and needs-based scholarships. For the next fiscal year, more than $390,000 has been budgeted for scholarships, according to officials at UJA-Federation’s Israel Experience Center.
“We look forward to taking this to the next level,” said Ruskay. “But to do this we need to better understand the nature of Birthright Israel. We have long encouraged Birthright Israel to test the idea with a more narrow and specific constituency, and we are delighted that its program will be launched in December with a focused approach on college students. We believe this will provide the potential to learn from this effort and to apply its implications in the future.”
Michael Papo, executive director of Birthright Israel, North America, said his organization is prepared to send 5,000 college students from North America and another 1,000 from the rest of the world to Israel during the winter recess in December, January and February. In a typical year, no more than 1,000 college students from North America visit Israel, Papo observed.
“The initial response [to Birthright Israel] has been favorable,” said Papo. “We have not yet begun recruitment, but the buzz from Hillel directors and others is that there is sufficient interest” to reach the 5,000 person goal in North America.
Although Birthright Israel is to be jointly funded with $100 million contributions from the government of Israel, philanthropists and local Jewish federations worldwide, Papo said these initial trips would be funded entirely by the philanthropists.
Papo said it was hoped that by next spring, the government of Israel and the federations would have made a commitment to the project. He noted that his organization had a professional staff ready to explain the project in detail to an advisory committee of Jewish federation executives and others. The committee is now being assembled by the United Jewish Communities.
“We’re asking the federations to become Birthright funding partners for the next five years, beginning in the year 2000,” said Papo.
In 2001, all high school students would be eligible for the free trip to Israel, but next summer four to eight communities will be invited to send high school students for a pilot project, Papo noted. He said it would allow the organization to “figure out how best to recruit on the high school level.” New York is not expected to be among the pilot communities because it has the largest number of Jewish youth in the United States — about 23 percent of the national figure.
Jewish communities worldwide will be asked to contribute a total of $20 million a year over the next five years and about 75 percent of that money is expected to come from North American Jewry. The amount each federation will be asked to contribute would depend on the number of youth who take advantage of Birthright Israel. Papo said it is expected to cost $1,900 per student — including the cost of marketing and administering the project. Since that cost would be split three ways, each federation would be asked to contribute $633 for each participant from its region. Participants must be between 15 and 26, and the project excludes those who have previously traveled to Israel on an organized, peer group trip.
“All federations across the country have Israel Experience programs and support them,” said Papo. “As Birthright Israel kicks into gear, more students will go and it will cost federations more than they are currently spending. But we believe this is one of the most important investments any community can make for its young people in behalf of the future of North American Jewry.”
Papo said that depending upon funding, there might be another trip for college students in May and again during the winter break next year.
About half of the trips for college students in the United States are expected to be run by Hillel. College students wishing to learn more about Birthright Israel and which trips are approved for the program are asked to call its toll-free number, (888) 99-ISRAEL during business hours, or to log onto its Web site, www.israelexperience.org. To participate, students must sign up with the program provider. In addition to Hillel, each Jewish denomination is planning to run its own trips.