Birthright for high-schoolers

Lapid looks to take it

Hundreds of thousands of Jewish college-age youth have visited Israel in recent years, their trips funded all or in part by Jewish organizations, philanthropists or the state. Now, a new umbrella group aims to bring the same level of organization, publicity and public funding to bringing younger Diaspora Jews - those still in high school - on similar trips here. Some 15,000 high-school-age Jewish youths visit Israel on a formal program each year, according to Ovad Yehezkel, former cabinet secretary and now a strategic adviser helping to launch the new Lapid program. Over the past 35 years, high-school programs are estimated to have brought some 500,000 teens to Israel. "But these figures reflect what can be done before government funding," Yehezkel said. Lapid was founded in 2008 to bring some 30 high school Israel programs under a single umbrella, allowing for better coordination, standard-setting and fund-raising. Its volunteer co-chairman is Gideon Shavit, CEO of one of the largest high school-age Israel program, the Hod Hasharon-based Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Shavit shares this position with Dan Krakow, Director of Young Judaea Israel, the Zionist Youth Movement of Hadassah. Lapid aims to become as successful as its best-known cousin, birthright-israel, a private initiative funded jointly by Israel, philanthropists, the Jewish Agency and others. "The State of Israel funds excellent programs such as Taglit [birthright] and MASA, but doesn't spend a single shekel toward bringing high-schoolers to Israel," lamented Yehezkel. "We're embarking on a series of steps to change that situation." The first step is to launch a MASA-style grant program, with organizers hoping to bring participation costs for many high school Israel programs down from the current estimate of $6,000-plus to approximately $3,000. "Without spending a shekel, Israel gets 15,000 participants each year for anywhere from two to four months," explained Avi Widerman, who works with Yehezkel and is also a former Prime Minister's Office official who dealt with Diaspora issues in the Olmert government. "If we can bring the cost down, a lot more families will be able to participate in this," said Widerman. Lapid has set a goal of doubling the current number of annual high school-age participants within seven years. The ramifications of such an achievement for Israel-Diaspora ties are immense, according to Yehezkel. Since participants in Lapid programs are usually "adopted" by host families during their stay in Israel, "try to imagine a quarter million [Israeli] households warmly connected to a quarter million Diaspora youth who have been to Israel. The potential is enormous." Lapid organizers have met with Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who, they said, expressed strong support for the idea. "Sharansky told us that the great advantage over Taglit and MASA is that we will catch these youth 'before the campus'- before they encounter the poisonous anti-Israel atmosphere on some [college] campuses," said Widerman. Alan Hoffman, director-general of the agency's Education Department, has offered to help develop a strategic plan for the new organization. But the agency is strapped for cash these days, so Lapid is pinning its hopes for actual funding on the government. To that end, Lapid has formed a working committee to draw up a pilot program for 2010, which it plans to submit to Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein in the coming weeks. "We're asking [the government] for NIS 10 million for the pilot," Yehezkel said. "It's a small pilot that aims to add perhaps 1,000 participants more than in previous years." "We're not interested in sharing Taglit or MASA funds, God forbid," Yehezkel was careful to add. "The government must not cut budgets for these excellent programs. We are asking for the government to add to what it spends on bringing Diaspora youth to Israel."