adelson taglit birthright.
(photo credit: David Karp)
Taglit-birthright Israel's celebration of a decade of bringing young Jews to Israel began on Tuesday as the wheels of a special El-Al flight from New York touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport.
To the sounding of shofars and the beat of drums, 400 participants in the program arrived in Israel for the first time, greeted by a cheering crowd.
Alumni of the program from over the past decade - all wearing t-shirts with the year of their first trip to Israel on their chests - joined the newcomers.
Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein greeted the guests at the festive ceremony, which was attended by many public figures, military officers, key donors and other dignitaries.
Edelstein told the audience the idea for Taglit-birthright Israel began about twelve years ago, when a group of North American Jews came together with the hope of bringing Jews to the country.
"They dreamt that a young Jew, from anywhere in the world, should have the ability to set foot in the state Herzl created," Edelstein said. "They wanted this opportunity to be available free of charge."
"They were mocked, their idea seen as impractical and grandiose," he continued. "This project grew from an idea to a reality."
Nearly a quarter million Jews from around the world have visited Israel on birthright trips.
"May you learn, eat, dance, cry and sing with us during your short visit here," Edelstein said to the crowd. "And in the years to come, may you continue to seek out ways to strengthen yourselves and your connection to Israel and the Jewish people."
As part of the celebration, Taglit-birthright Israel alumni from around the world will join the alumni who live in Israel for a tour in the "Decade Bus". The tour is meant to reconstruct their initial visit to the country.
Taglit-birthright co-founder Charles Bronfman said that when the program was created, it was envisioned not only as a way to bring Diaspora Jews to Israel, free of charge, but to bring together Jews from around the world.
"40,000 Israelis have joined over 200,000 Diaspora participants in being on birthright, and you are going to meet those Israelis, and those of us who see a great and strong Jewish future know one thing: If Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews can come together and be friends, and find out - despite societal differences - that there is so much that binds us together, then the dreams of our forbearers will come true," Bronfman told the crowd.
Sheldon Adelson, a major donor for the program said that what caused him to contribute to Taglit-birthright was that his parents always wanted to go to Israel but when the opportunity came about, they became too old and sick to make a trip.
"What turns me on to helping you guys is that I don't want you to become too old or too sick before you discover your roots," Adelson said.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was scheduled to attend, but was unable to appear and instead sent a video greeting to the participants.
"I hope you all have a great discovery and great adventure," Netanyahu said. "Discover who you are in Israel, in the land of your fathers, and discover the ways of your new home. Welcome home."
In addition, a Taglit-birthright Israel fingerprint flag was inaugurated at the ceremony, entering the Guinness Book of Records for the world's largest collective work of art. This special flag was designed with 28,267 fingerprints.
Taglit participants over the past two years imprinted their fingerprints on a small piece of paper before returning home. The fingerprints were used to make up the two stripes and the Star of David on a large Israeli flag of 5x4 meters.