Taglit-Birthright Israel has loosened its eligibility requirements for those wishing to participate in its free 10-day Israel trips.
During a meeting of its steering committee on Wednesday, the organization, whose funding comes from a consortium of philanthropic funds, Jewish communal groups and the government, announced it will expand the program to include people who had previously toured Israel as part of a high school trip.
The new guidelines will go into effect this summer.
Until now, those eligible were Diaspora Jews, aged 18 to 26, who have never traveled to Israel on a peer educational trip or study program and have not have lived in Israel past the age of 12.
Trips for those who have previously come to Israel on such programs will be paid exclusively by Diaspora organizations.
Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, who chairs the committee, said expanding Birthright would strengthen the identity of Jewish students as well as their understanding of Israel.
“Taglit has proven itself as a leader in strengthening Jewish identity amongst young people in the Diaspora and building ties with the State of Israel,” Bennett said. “Expanding the participation criteria will add to Taglit’s positive influence in the Jewish world.”
“Expanding the participation criteria to Jews who visited Israel earlier in their lives will empower them further to balance the perception of the country in the Diaspora, on college campuses and Jewish communities around the world,” Bennett’s ministry said.
A ministry spokesman said it did not know precisely how the new guidelines will affect the number of participants, a possible increase of around 10,000 per year was foreseen.
“I am happy the steering committee supports this decision that every young Jew is entitled to an educational tour of Israel. I believe that this decision will strengthen the bond between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora and empower tens of thousands of young Jews in their efforts to portray Israel in a positive light around the world,” Taglit CEO Gidi Mark said.
The committee also committed to find funding to increase the number of French Jews coming on Birthright.
“French Jews face a series of complex challenges” Bennett said. “Through Taglit, we must act to strengthen their Jewish identity as well as their ties to the Jewish people and Israel.”
According to a 2010 Brandeis University study, coming to Israel on a Birthright tour is “strongly associated with measurable decreases in the probability of intermarriage.”
The Prime Minister’s Office, in conjunction with the Jewish Agency and the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, is in the early stages of planning a massive Diaspora initiative that is expected to pump over $1 billion into joint projects with Jewish communities around the world over the next two decades.
Expanding Birthright is one of the most common ideas raised by Jewish leaders in the United States when discussing how to combat assimilation. Speaking with The Jerusalem Post during the initiative’s inaugural government-Diaspora summit in Jerusalem in November, Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and one of the authors of the Birthright study, said that expanding the program would play a key role in preserving Jewish identity abroad.
“We have to reach out to the people who haven’t yet been engaged.
You need to take the platform that Taglit represents and make it available to more people, maybe younger people, older people, couples,” he said.
While Jewish leaders generally agree that the expansion of such programs is a positive step, there has been some criticism of the lack of engagement with participants once they return home.
“Most communities offer [Birthright returnees] absolutely nothing to do except raising money for the Federation,” Boston Federation chief Barry Shrage said during a panel discussion last year. “With all due respect, that is a nice thing to do, but if that is your whole agenda we are in deep trouble. We offer them nothing after Birthright.”
Despite the ongoing debate over the need for follow-up – which is one of the topics being addressed by Jewish leaders participating in the government’s Diaspora initiative – support for Birthright remains strong and the newly loosened requirements are likely to be received warmly.
“All the available studies show the value of high school trips,” said Dan Brown, editor of eJewishPhilanthropy.
“Now with the opening of Taglit to this demographic, and the possibility of an additional trip in the formative years, we have a win all around: for the participants, for Taglit and for Israel itself.”