(photo credit: Taglit-birthright)
Trip organizers for Birthright have begun screening American candidates interested in free trips to Israel to prevent Messianic Jews from participating.
A questionnaire of a Birthright (Taglit) trip organizer that was obtained by The Jerusalem Post includes a question regarding applicants' religious faith.
Under a category entitled "eligibility rules," applicants are asked to declare that they are Jewish.
They are also asked to declare that "I do not subscribe to any beliefs or follow any practices which may be in any way associated with Messianic Judaism, Jews for Jesus or Hebrew Christians."
The questionnaire stipulates that if the applicant lies about any of the questions that confirm eligibility he or she will be immediately dismissed from the program and will lose a $250 deposit. In addition, he or she might be obligated to pay the full cost of the trip - valued at $2,500 to $3,000 - paid by Birthright.
Messianic Jews are often Jewish by lineage and/or identify themselves with the Jewish people, but believe that Jesus is the messiah. Most celebrate the Jewish holidays and study Jewish texts in addition to the New Testament.
Attorney Calev Myers, founder and chief counsel of the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, a nonprofit organization that provides legal counsel to Messianic Jews in Israel, called the screening practice "blatant, ridiculous discrimination" and "a shame."
"Instead of drawing children of Messianic Jewish families closer to their Jewish roots, they are excluding them from participating," he said.
Myers said that as far as he could tell, the practice of asking questions about belief in Jesus was new.
"As recently as this past summer, Messianic Jews who took part in Birthright trips were not asked these questions," he said.
Taglit-Birthright's CEO, Gidi Mark, said in a statement, "Contemporary Jewish life has many diverse criteria for being Jewish and Taglit-Birthright Israel has followed the broadest guidelines used by the contemporary community."
"There is unanimity in Jewish life that individuals who may be from Jewish lineage or family life and who choose the Messianic path (and in so doing accept the Christian belief in Jesus) have chosen a path that separates them from the accepted parameters of Jewishness in contemporary Jewish society.
"Such a choice is regarded as analogous to freely converting out of normative Jewish belief systems. This is not a denial of their origins, nor is it about the quality of their beliefs. It is simply an agreed upon formula that certain acts categorically separate individuals from what are agreed-upon parameters of Jewishness in this age.
"Taglit-Birthright Israel follows these accepted parameters of contemporary Jewish life and for that reason 'Messianics' are not within Taglit-Birthright Israel parameters."
Mark added that the exclusion of Messianic Jews was not a new policy. Rather it has been Taglit-Birthright's policy since its founding and was a part of the agreement with its funding partners.
"People who opt out of what constitutes being Jewish according to the accepted Jewish denominations should not be eligible for Taglit-Birthright's gift," he said.
The father of a boy who was kicked off a Birthright trip several years ago after organizers discovered he believed that Jesus was the messiah spoke with the Post on condition of anonymity, fearing that his son would be prevented from immigrating to Israel.
By law, someone born to a Jewish mother who adopts another religion forfeits his or her right to automatic Israeli citizenship. However, someone who is not Jewish according to Halacha but is still eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return does not lose that right as a result of adopting another religion.
"The truth is I feel sorry for them [Birthright-Taglit]," said the father, who immigrated to Israel with his family after his son was kicked off the Birthright trip.
"They are closed-eyed and closed-minded. If my son had told them that he was a Buddhist, an atheist or a homosexual they would have no problem. Belief that Yeshua [Jesus] is the savior is the dividing line.
"Birthright assumes there is an overarching parameter for defining who is a Jew. But I think a lot of Israelis would feel more comfortable with me than with a haredi from Mea She'arim.
"I don't understand their fear. Isn't it still a wonderful thing to bring a Jew closer to the land of Israel? Are we the boogeyman? Are they afraid we are going to come and steal their children away or something?"
The father said that he and his family celebrate all the Jewish holidays, light Shabbat candles, make Kiddush, and attend services at their local Messianic synagogue.
"The only thing different is that I read the New Testament and I believe that Yeshua is the messiah."