A human bridge

Taglit CEO talks about changes Zionist project has made in Jewish community and its goals for the future.

Taglit-Birthright (photo credit: Courtesy Taglit)
(photo credit: Courtesy Taglit)
Taglit-Birthright, which is celebrating its bar mitzva year, is a Zionist project whose goal is to strengthen the ties between Jewish communities abroad and the State of Israel and Jewish identity within these communities. Thousands of young Jews from all over the world come to Israel through the project to get to know Israel and its residents by means of tours, meetings and integration into society and the local economy.
Fifteen years ago, Gidi Mark was appointed Taglit’s first employee when it was still in its development stage. For the past four years, after holding various positions in the project, he has served as Taglit’s CEO. Mark, 52, lives in Modi’in and has three children. In this interview, he talks about the changes that Taglit has made in the Jewish community and the project’s goals for the future.
How would you describe the Taglit project?
It’s the most successful project in the Jewish community. It is the bridge that connects Diaspora Jews with Israel. We address young people ages 18-26 who have at least one Jewish parent. They tour the country for 10 days, and our goal is to bring them closer to Israel. And it works. It dramatically increases their desire to raise their children Jewish, their understanding of the situation in Israel, and their knowledge about Israeli media sources. Approximately 40 percent of Taglit participants have returned to Israel, making up a large part of immigrant students in Israel and lone soldiers.
Also, the project has greatly contributed to Israel’s economy – over NIS 2 billion.
Who is involved in organizing the project?
It’s a partnership that is made up of three parties: Jewish philanthropists in the US, who are the project’s initiators; the State of Israel, which has increased its investment in the project significantly in the last three years, understanding that Israel can benefit from the project on a strategic level, as well as Jewish communities abroad; and Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Agency.What new projects does Taglit have underway?
In addition to the standard 10-day tour, we have specialinterest groups that focus on specific fields such as gastronomy, music, sports, medicine and fashion. We’re also trying to make the 10- day tour suitable for people with special needs. We also have groups that extend their stay in Israel in order to explore a certain field that is relevant to the Israeli economy, such as a start-up group and a search-and-rescue group. Our latest endeavor is to bring groups of professionals that are considered high priority in Israel, such as doctors and teachers, up to age 30. But that will be carried out next yea.r This year we opened a training course for tour guides from the Tourism Ministry, to teach them to be educators so they can be part of the educational staff of Taglit.
Another thing is the Birthright Israel Excel project. A program for young business leadership, it is geared toward students who we think have the potential to lead the way in business on an international level and contribute to the Jewish community.
We would like to build an international Jewish network that will include Israel on the business map as part of its participants’ Jewish identity. The participants come to Israel for 10 weeks and are assigned mentors from leading companies who are top economic experts. This year, 36 out of 19,000 applicants were accepted.How does Taglit market itself?
We have a unique marketing method that is based on word of mouth, and this brings us a lot of candidates every year.
In the past, people were reluctant to come to Israel; young people put Israel in the same category as Afghanistan and Kosovo. But thanks to the buzz created by Taglit, we even have a waiting list.
What are your goals for the future?
There are approximately 100,000 young people in the Jewish community. We estimate that if we have the means, we can bring at least 51,000 here in a year – that is most of the Jewish young people in the world.
Some 42,000 participants are due here in 2012 alone, and that is no small matter.
What are some of your smaller achievements?
A young man who grew up in a non-Jewish environment decided to stay in Israel. After completing his three-year army service, he met a girl, fell in love, and they moved in together. We see hundreds of similar cases. We have people who became active in the Jewish community in the US after their Taglit trip, even those who had hardly any Jewish collective awareness.