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A program to bring Diaspora teachers and community leaders on a subsidized educational trip to Israel has gained government approval for the first time.
At Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting, the ministers approved a pilot program of Netivey Masa, or Masa Pathways, a joint government-Jewish Agency project that is intended to finance a majority of the expense for such trips.
Dubbed the "teachers' birthright," the idea came to the government's attention through the Massachusetts-based Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, which disappeared when its assets were wiped out in the Robert Madoff scandal.
The Lappin Foundation sent some 200 teachers on such trips, demonstrating the viability of the enterprise, according to government officials.
The program will be run through the five-year-old Masa organization, which runs five-month and year programs in Israel for Diaspora youths and is jointly owned by the government and the Jewish Agency.
Sunday's cabinet decision allocates a $500,000 grant to the program, to be matched by the agency, with additional funds to come from participation fees from the teachers and their communities.
The cost per participant is not yet known because various models for the program are still being examined, according to officials close to the project. Estimates range from $5,000 to $12,000, affected by the scale of preparation and follow-up before and after the trip, the educational activities in Israel and the size and composition of the professional staff.
The program is relatively easy to budget because funding for it already exists in government coffers. Masa is budgeted each year for up to 20,000 participants, but has not managed to attract more than some 8,000 annually.
The unspent funds return each year to the government coffers.
Some officials in Masa worry that if they cannot use the funds, they will eventually lose them altogether, making expanding the program in future years more difficult. Once lost, they say, funding from the government is hard to regain.
Implementation of the pilot project will begin as soon as the program gets a waiver from tender regulations from the Prime Ministers Office and the Finance Ministry, according to the text of the cabinet decision.
"This is historic," said cabinet secretary Ovad Yehezkel, one of the architects of the initiative.
"For the first time, the State of Israel will be funding a long-term project to help Jewish education abroad. The teachers will be guests of the State of Israel," Yehezkel said. The pilot year is the beginning of a much grander plan, he said.
"Only 20 percent of the world's Jewish educators have come to Israel, mostly on their own. With this new agenda, we will bring every last Jewish educator to Israel within 10 years," he said.
"Until now, the Israel programs for Diaspora Jews have been about creating individual experiences for participants. Here we're giving that experience to institutions. Every teachers will go back to their community and have a dramatic effect on many more people. The teachers will visit schools in Israel, and meet other educators. That way we will develop an incredible interface between our education system and Diaspora Jewish education systems," Yehezkel said.