By MICHAEL FREUND
From Jerusalem Post
It has been hailed across the political and religious spectrum by rabbis, educators, and statesmen alike.
In just four years, it has brought tens of thousands of Jews to Israel, injected tens of millions of dollars into the Israeli economy, and helped to energize Jewish youth in dozens of communities throughout the Diaspora.
It has made significant inroads in saving young Jews from assimilation and intermarriage, and reaffirmed the centrality of the Jewish state to the future of the Jewish people.
So this year, how exactly has Israel's government decided to reward the birthright israel program - known here as Taglit - for its unprecedented accomplishments?
By slashing its funding.
Launched in the year 2000, thanks to the vision of philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, birthright was as simple as it was ambitious: its aim was to give Diaspora Jewish youth an opportunity to reconnect with their heritage by offering them an all-expenses-paid, 10-day trip to Israel.
The critics and the naysayers wasted little time in attacking the idea. It'll never work, they said, since Jewish kids don't care about coming to Israel. And even if they do, asserted the program's detractors, what good can a whirlwind tour possibly do to ignite their latent Jewish identities?
Needless to say, the critics were wrong on both counts.
Take, for example, the fact that in the 1990s, before birthright was launched, the number of Jewish students visiting Israel annually was said to number just 1,500. In 2003, as a result of the program, the total reached 15,000, or 10 times the 1990s figure. In effect, then, birthright accomplishes in one year what all the other programs combined would take a decade to do.
Indeed, nearly 60,000 young Jews from 35 countries around the world have participated in birthright thus far, including groups from as far afield as Russia, Cuba, the US and Brazil.
But the impact is far greater than merely
quantitative. It also transforms people's lives, reinvigorating their Jewish spirit and forever binding their fate with that of the Jewish people.
Earlier this week, Gideon Mark, birthright's director of marketing, told me story after story of Jewish kids whose lives had been forever changed by their brief yet intense exposure to Israel.
Some decide to seek out a Jewish marriage partner, others become involved in Jewish communal or religious life. A handful have chosen to make aliya.
Even the Israeli army is impressed, noticing the impact the program has had on young Israeli soldiers accompanying the students on their trips around the country. As a result, Mark says, the army has expanded its cooperation with the group because it enables the soldiers to better appreciate their kinship with Diaspora Jewry and instills within them a greater sense of pride regarding Israel's accomplishments.
But despite its track record, birthright is now getting short-changed by both the Israeli government and American Jewish organizations.
IN THE 2004 budget passed by the Knesset last week, the government reneged on its previous promises and cut the program's funding by an astonishing 95 percent, from $9 million in 2003 to just $400,000 in 2004.
And the United Jewish Communities, the fund-raising arm of American Jewry, has also indicated that it will not live up to its original commitment, citing tough economic times, among other reasons.
Consequently, according to Mark, birthright will have to cut back on the number of Jewish students it brings to Israel this year. Instead of 20,000 or even 30,000 new visitors in 2004, as had originally been hoped, just 10,000 may now be able to come.
And so, at a time when Israel is clamoring for more travelers to visit its shores, the government, together with American Jewish organizations, has effectively undercut one of the most successful and meaningful Israel programs in the Jewish world today. The decision is even more puzzling when one considers the economic benefits birthright provides.
Since its inception, the program has received a total of $35 million in grants from successive Israeli governments, yet it is estimated to have generated more than $90 million in return for the economy. Much of these revenues have gone to industries hit especially hard by the Palestinian intifada, such as hotels, tour operators and even El Al. Hence, birthright has the distinction of being not only beneficial for Israel, but profitable too.
As Avi Rosental, the director of the Israel Hotel Association, said last summer: "Tourism is a major branch of the Israeli economy that has suffered a lot because of the geopolitical situation. The increase in birthright israel tourists will perhaps bring us to a turning point where hotels can rehire staff and increase employment all over the country."
It is not too late to repair the situation and save birthright from shrinking in size. Pressure must be brought to bear on both the Israeli government and the Jewish federations in America to give birthright the priority in funding it rightly deserves.
The economy may still be sluggish, and donations may indeed be drying up even as the Jewish community's needs continue to grow. But we are talking about the future of the Jewish people, about saving young Jews from assimilation and reconnecting them with their heritage.
What could possibly be more important than that? The writer served as deputy director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Prime Minister's Office under former premier Binyamin Netanyahu.
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