Birthright Israel’s next chapter

The innovator of the fully subsidized community teen Israel experience in the US is conducting a national campaign to convince Birthright Israel to lower the age of eligibility to 16.

Taglit Mega event at Jerusalem's Binyanei Hauma (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Taglit Mega event at Jerusalem's Binyanei Hauma
In an effort to enable the Jewish world to meet the new, urgent need to cope with the rise of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel activities in academia, the innovator of the fully subsidized community teen Israel experience in the United States is conducting a national campaign to convince Birthright Israel to lower the age of eligibility to 16. Robert Israel Lappin, philanthropist and president of the Lappin Foundation, headquartered in Salem, Massachusetts, is spearheading the effort.
Lappin credits Birthright Israel for being one of the Jewish world’s greatest innovations, superbly accomplishing what it set out to do. However, when Birthright Israel started in 1999, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activities on campus were not the critical issue they have since become.
The rise in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities in academia begs for an effective strategy to address this new challenge. As Lappin sees it, when Jewish teens arrive on college campuses, they are thrust into a vulnerable position, unprepared, uninformed and unable to cope with hostility, antagonism and even worse against Israel and Jews. Furthermore, Lappin believes the problems in academia are making their way into American high schools.
Consequently, teaching Jewish teens Israel advocacy skills and complex approaches to Israel before they go to college is a new, urgent need the Jewish world must address.
In Lappin’s opinion, Birthright Israel lowering the age of eligibility to 16 is the best, and possibly only solution, to battle the growing crisis, quickly and effectively, by providing the Israel experience that is essential for Israel advocacy to work. He explained that the Birthright Israel experience, that firsthand experience of being in Israel, of understanding Israel’s role in the world, and of marveling at Israel’s contributions to every field of human endeavor, resonates with teens, making not only Israel advocacy effective, but Jewish life more readily meaningful for them.
After 25 years of funding a partially subsidized community Israel experience for Jewish teens living in the Foundation’s service area, in 1996 Lappin made the strategic decision to fully subsidize the trip.
Participation immediately doubled from an average of 25 teens per year going to Israel, eventually quadrupling to an average of 100 teens every year. Lappin credits the full subsidy for the trip’s success, a move that earned the Lappin Foundation’s Youth to Israel (Y2I) Adventure the title of the most successful community teen Israel experience, per capita, in North America. Y2I Adventure attracts approximately 60 percent of the identified pool of Jewish teens in his community, ages 16 and 17, as compared to approximately 10% of Jewish teens nationally who go to Israel, not including the Orthodox.
Earlier this year, Professor Steven M. Cohen and Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz conducted a research study of alumni of Y2I, which was commissioned by the Foundation. The study showed that 72% of alumni who married, married someone Jewish, and 90% who had children were raising them Jewish. Pertinence of the study is that Birthright Israel’s effectiveness will not be diluted by lowering the age of eligibility to 16.
According to Lappin, “lowering the age of eligibility to 16 will provide an opportunity for Birthright Israel to significantly improve by expanding its reach and its role in helping Jewish communities to address this new and fast-growing crisis.”
Lappin proposes that Israel advocacy training should be the responsibility of the Jewish community to develop. Birthright Israel can do for teens what Birthright Israel does best – provide a life-changing Israel experience that ignites emotions and sparks interest in Israel.
“There are important added benefits as well,” Lappin is quick to point out. “Having the Birthright Israel experience at 16 will also serve as a pipeline for longer-term Israel experiences before college for a gap year, and during college, including a semester or year abroad.”
Lappin sees Birthright Israel for Teens as an opportunity to strengthen existing longer-term teen Israel experiences, by making them more affordable with a 10-day voucher from Birthright that can be applied to longer trips.
The rationale behind Lappin’s thinking is that a teen Israel experience before college provides the background, and ample time, up to two years, for teens to learn how to advocate for Israel, something that Birthright Israel is not able to do, given that Birthright Israel trips take place after a young adult’s college experience has started. As has been Y2I’s practice for years, local communities can develop programs that will train and equip Jewish teens with skills and techniques necessary to contend with anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activities and sentiments before, during and after their college years, but only if teens have been fortified with an Israel experience.
Lappin explains that key to attracting Jewish teens en masse to an Israel experience is the adoption of the justly admired Birthright Israel model: a free 10-day trip, and that Birthright Israel is the only viable entity to meet this new challenge.
He sees a successful solution at hand to deal with this growing crisis.
“If Birthright Israel agrees to lower its age of eligibility to 16 and the government of Israel helps to fund it as part of its new initiative, the Jewish world will be well on its way to meeting this new, urgent need.”
The list of supporters for Lappin’s initiative is growing, and includes Federation executive directors, lay leaders and others. The Foundation will provide the list of supporters upon request, and Lappin invites supporters to add their names to the growing list.