Birthright program expanding eligibility beyond first-timers
New rules welcome kids who visit Israel before college years
Local educators and trip operators welcomed news that the Taglit-Birthright program is expanding the eligibility for its free trips to Israel.
Beginning this summer, Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 who have visited Israel on other organized trips will be able to apply for Birthright, JNS.org reported. Registration opens on Feb. 19.
Previously, Jewish youth who took an organized trip to Israel before the age of 18 were not eligible for the free 10-day Birthright tours.
“I think the change is great,” said Amir Shacham, executive shaliah at the Israel Program Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. “It will open up the opportunity for many more young adults who were not eligible…. It was not fair to punish them for going on an earlier trip. It will allow us to have more participation in our own buses in this community.”
Each year for the past seven years, some 150 young people have taken part in federation-sponsored Birthright trips. Shacham hopes to expand that number by approaching young people who have already visited Israel as Diller Teen Fellows, on day school trips, or other sponsored programs.
Gail Hyman, vice president of communications and marketing at Taglit-Birthright Israel, said 26,932 New Jersey youth have taken part in Birthright since it began 14 years ago. Most of their trips were organized by the Greater MetroWest, Northern NJ, and Monmouth County federations, along with groups from Rutgers and Princeton universities.
“We hope this will open it up to tens of thousands of young Jewish adults who previously were not able to apply,” she said of the changes.
“We are pleased that those earlier trips happened,” said Hyman. “But we felt the itinerary and the educational rigor of a 10-day Birthright trip is a very serious immersive experience at a point in young adults’ lives when they are looking to explore who they are.”
Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel, said some 1,000 students visited Israel on the Birthright trips it sponsored.
“We expect there are dozens of students now on campus who are now eligible but who were not eligible before,” he said.
In fact, Rutgers Hillel will take advantage of the new rule by offering a summer trip for recent graduates who were previously ineligible, “as long as they are under 26,” Getraer said. “We prioritize Rutgers students and alumni, but we have had non-Rutgers students who are local residents.”
Robert Lichtman, executive director of The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, said the change “is huge news.”
The Partnership, the educational arm of the Greater MetroWest federation, coordinates a number of Israel programs for local teenagers, including Alexander Muss High School in Israel, Destination: Jewish Service Learning, the March of the Living, and Diller Teen Fellows.
Lichtman thinks the new Birthright rules will help with recruiting for these programs.
“Often, teens or their parents say, ‘Why should I spend money now when I can go on Birthright for free?’” he said. “But now that the rules have changed, we should be using them for high school recruitment to proactively say, ‘If you go on any of these trips it no longer means you will be disqualified from Birthright.’”
The popularity of the Birthright trips — and studies showing they have boosted the Jewish identities of participants — has encouraged Jewish organizations to expand the model to other cohorts.
Greater MetroWest’s Israel Program Center is also offering trips for parents of Birthright graduates and other adults in the community.
The first such tour for older adults will be held this summer and run by the operators of the Birthright tours. The cost will be $1,900 per person, plus plane fare.
“Over the years we heard a lot of times from parents who have said, ‘I want to have such an experience as well as my kids.’ We hear this a lot,” Shacham said.
People interested in Birthright trips can get more information here.