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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
Birthright Israel is probably the most important project to be created for the strengthening of Jewish identity and Diaspora-Israel relations since Israel Bonds and the United Jewish Appeal. That said, most if not everyone agrees that the program has not reached its full potential. We would like to see more of the participants become committed to Judaism and Israel and active participants in Jewish life on campus and in the wider community.
I previously suggested two somewhat revolutionary changes in the program that could make a difference. One is to make the list of participants more widely available to organizations that would like to welcome their involvement. My other recommendation was to encourage students to make at least a token charitable contribution to the Jewish federation to connect them to the community, establish a habit of giving and reinforce the importance of tzedaka.
More still can be done.
One of the target audiences of birthright are students who have little knowledge about Israel. Clearly a 10-day trip will not teach them everything they should know, but the hope is that they will learn a great deal and be encouraged by the experience to learn even more. This is more speculative, however, than it needs to be. There are a variety of ways to ensure that students learn more. For example, thanks to a generous donor, the America-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) has been providing copies of the advocate's bible, Myths and Facts, to students on Hillel birthright trips for several years. Participants might be given an Israel studies package either before or after the trip.
We know that many more students want to go on birthright than space allows and a lottery system was instituted. Rather than adopting a random system, why not introduce an Israel 101 course for all prospective birthright students and make their attendance a condition for getting a place on the trip? Alternatively, a post-trip course could be offered and students who attend all the meetings could be offered a generous subsidy toward a return trip. I know that some campuses have adopted these types of courses.
Another approach would be to adopt a more subtle and social educational approach through regular "coffee house" meetings. This year AICE is sponsoring 25 visiting Israeli scholars at 24 campuses who could host such meetings. They would not be lectures, but simply get-togethers where the Israeli professor might introduce a topic for discussion or simply be there as a resource to share in a discussion about what students experienced on their birthright trips. The idea would be to keep the group together and engaged in discussion about anything related to Israel. They might develop programs, such as a social action project or a day in the life of a soldier boot camp for exercise.
I READ that the Israeli government is now thinking about funding birthright programs for high school students. This is long overdue and probably should be part of birthright's mandate rather than starting up a separate program. As many of us have said for a long time, it may not be too late to educate Jewish students when they get to college, but it is very late, and it would be much better if we could teach them at least some of what they need to know before they get to a university.
It is also important to try to reach out to students who are interested in traveling, but don't necessarily want to go to Israel. I'm sure many students are more interested in seeing Europe than Israel. Trips should be developed that are Eurocentric with Israel as an add-on. A number of high school programs do this, but more could be done with college students. And I'm not talking about the trip down Holocaust memory lane through Eastern Europe. Those trips might also be options, but my idea is to focus more on the students who have their eyes on London, Athens, Paris, Madrid and Rome whom we'd like to see also in Jerusalem. We should also find a way, if it is not done already, to offer birthright trips to students on study abroad programs.
Given the economic situation, birthright has been cutting back, but this is not the time for retrenchment. It is time to take birthright to the next level.
The writer is the author of more than 20 books including Will Israel Survive? and executive director of the America-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.
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