Jewish Journal


October 7, 1999

More than a Birthright

A new program created by American billionaires and the Israeli government provides college students with free trips to Israel


Having recently become excited about her Jewish heritage, Michelle Block wants to start off the new millennium with a trip to Israel. And thanks to a new program created by a group of American billionaires and the Israeli government, this Cal State Northridge student just might get the chance, and she won't have to pay a nickel, or a shekel, either. That's right -- a free trip. Free flight, free lodging, free tour.

Block's wish is to be among 5,000 Jewish college students from North America who will go to Israel in January as participants in Birthright Israel, an ambitious, new project that organizers call "a gift from one generation to the next."

The idea for the program began a few years back, when Yossi Beilin of Israel's Labor Party told American philanthropist Michael Steinhardt that a stay in Israel should be a universal experience for all young Diaspora Jews.

Steinhardt, in turn, approached Charles Bronfman, who had long contributed toward Israel trips for Jewish teen-agers. Steinhardt and Bronfman envisioned a series of no-cost, no-strings-attached study tours, through which young adults who were previously disengaged from Jewish life could discover a sense of connection with the Jewish people worldwide.

To help fund the initial five-year project, five North American businessmen have each contributed $5 million, and the Israeli government has pledged to chip in $100 million. (Mark Charendoff, vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, claims this is the first time that Israel is giving Diaspora Jews financial help unrelated to rescue and resettlement.) Additional sums may come from Jewish communities around the globe.

Of the 5,000 students coming from North America, two-thirds will travel in groups organized and staffed through Hillel's Israel 2000. Others will take advantage of trips offered through religious youth groups and other special-interest Jewish organizations.

This range of options reflects the funders' dedication to a free-market approach. Says Charendoff, "Nike has a lot of different types of shoes out there." Research also shows that marginally affiliated Jews respond best to a variety of choices, he says.

One big question about Birthright has long been, Will marginal Jews respond at all? Based on the applications now flooding in, there's clear evidence that young Jews -- however detached they may be from formal Jewish life -- are hungry to know more about their ancient homeland.

Hillel's Israel 2000 requires applicants to submit their forms via the Internet. Keith Krivitzky, national director of Israel 2000, notes that these electronic forms were first made available on Sept. 1, long before many colleges were back in session. Three weeks later, there were 6,200 applications for 3,000 spaces, and many more were expected to arrive before the Sept. 30 deadline. There are 200 available slots in the Southern California area.

Hillel's campus-based approach mandates that students travel with peers from their own universities. It is up to each local Hillel to select an appropriate mix from among the applicants, who have a wide range of cultural backgrounds, political slants and levels of religious conviction. There is one key condition: Students must never before have visited Israel on an organized educational program. Beyond that, campus Hillels can name their own criteria.

Some are gearing the trip toward freshmen and sophomores, toward those with leadership potential, or toward, for instance, athletes or members of fraternal organizations. Many schools, among them Hillel at Pierce and Valley Colleges, may resort to a lottery to choose among prospective travelers.

CSUN Hillel has been allotted 20 spaces, and Block, the chapter's incoming president, is among the school's applicants. She hopes the decision-makers will focus on students who are passionately interested in Israel, weeding out those who are merely after a free trip.

While Program Director Noah Bleich of the Claremont Colleges Hillel says he'll give preference to students already active in his chapter, the Birthright's true intent, as spelled out in materials circulated among Hillel staffs, is that "the majority of participants should be those who have not been involved in Jewish life on campus."

Once the 10 days are over, however, no traveler is required to formally connect with Hillel. Organizers trust that the combination of a thought-provoking trip and what national Hillel executive Rhoda Weisman calls, "the magic that Israel has to offer," will lead returnees to gravitate naturally into the campus Jewish community, and perhaps become its future leaders.

UCLA will have no trouble filling its 40 slots. That many of the Jewish students are opting for a flight to Israel instead of the traditional winter-break ski trip has left Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller both surprised and overjoyed. He admits that he was initially skeptical about Israel 2000. But he says now: "I've warmed up to the idea myself and become excited. There's something important going on here."

As a result of the Birthright concept, he sees the potential for many bright, sensitive college students rediscovering their Jewish identity. But, he insists, "the obligation is on us, on the programmers," to provide a trip with enough intellectual and spiritual content to capitalize on the students' curiosity about their Jewish roots.

Says Seidler-Feller: "This is an amazing gift -- as good as it gets. Let's hope we are good guardians of the project."

One staffer who will bear direct responsibility for the success of the UCLA trip is Andrea Nussbaum. As UCLA Hillel's program director, Nussbaum will travel with the students, share their adventures, and help mold them into a cohesive unit. Along with Hillel travel leaders from other campuses, she will first participate in several in-depth training sessions, at which topics such as group dynamics -- and how to make it safe for students to express their feelings -- will be given high priority. She will also receive guidance in planning meaningful follow-up activities after her group returns home.

Nussbaum, an experienced leader of student Israel trips, is optimistic about what Israel 2000 will accomplish. She says: "A lot can happen in 10 days. I think it really can change the face of the Jewish community. I think we're changing history."

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