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When Stephanie Lowenthal arrives this afternoon at Ben-Gurion Airport, it will mark a milestone in the short but successful history of Taglit-birthright Israel, the organization that has spent the last six years providing young Jews in the Diaspora a chance to experience Israel for the first time.
Lowenthal is the program's 100,000th participant. A 26-year-old New Yorker who works for the communications department of the NASDAQ Stock Market, Lowenthal, like the 99,999 before her, will be on the standard 10-day tour which will take her many of Israel's main tourist sites like the Western Wall, Masada, and the Dead Sea.
"I've always wanted to visit Israel and I'm glad I'm getting a chance to go with birthright before I'm too old," Lowenthal told The Jerusalem Post. Twenty-six is the top of the age range for participants on the trips. "I think I represent the typical participant. I'm interested but just haven't had the opportunity to go yet."
Her PR background and sunny disposition can only help birthright. Lowenthal will be an important spokesperson for the publicity surrounding the 100,000th mark.
The program was the brainchild of some of the most active philanthropists in Jewish life, including Michael Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman, and Lynn Schustermann. In collaboration with the Israeli government, they came up with the idea of providing all-expense paid tours in an effort to break down the barriers between Israel and the Diaspora and to give young Jews a chance to connect with their Jewish identity.
Steinhardt, who was on hand for the announcement last week at the Israeli consulate in New York, talked about how the program has by now had participants from over 50 countries, from as far away as Azerbaijan and Venezuela.
"We have reached a remarkable milestone in the history of Jewish programming. One hundred thousand young Jews have accepted an opportunity to explore Israel - the heart of Jewish culture, history and its people. This unforgettable gift strengthens the bond between Israel and Jews from around the world, as well as illuminates the ever-evolving Jewish identity," said Steinhardt.
"I am extremely proud of the success of the Taglit-birthright israel program and I look forward to sending the next 100,000 participants."
In fact, Steinhardt noted that the biggest problem facing the program right now is a backlog of requests for trips. With the security situation appearing to improve, many more young people are signing on to visit Israel. This summer alone, Steinhardt said, they received 15,000 more applications than they were able to accommodate.
In addition to providing a connection to Israel, Taglit-birthright has also calculated the effect that the influx of young tourists has had on the Israeli economy. Though the numbers are only estimates, provided by the consulate, they are telling. The program has created over 281,500 workdays for Israelis.
Participants have traveled for 27,200 days on tour buses and slept in 300,000 hotel rooms. They have spent a total of $17,000,000 in cafes, $4,800,000 on entrance fees into tourist sites, $7,300,000 on tour buses and $27,600,000 in personal purchases.
According to birthright, over $182 million in revenue has been generated.
This makes everyone all around feel good: the philanthropists, the Israeli government, and even the participants, who get a free trip.
One can only hope that a majority of the young, mostly American, Jews traveling to Israel this summer have the same noble motivations as Lowenthal does. Just days before her departure, she said, "I'm really just excited to connect with a place I've only ever heard about in Hebrew school."
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