What is the most effective philanthropic program the Jewish community has initiated in the last few decades? Without question, according to our cover story on Israel travel, the answer has to be Birthright.
Taglit-Birthright Israel was the brainchild of the successful Wall Street financier Michael Steinhardt in partnership with Charles Bronfman (with additional help from private donors, the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel).
The concept could not be simpler. Those committed to a Jewish way of life know how central Israel is to their identity. So to impart this sense of centrality to young people, why not provide them with a free trip — first stop, Ben-Gurion Airport?
These 10-day visits, which now accommodate all sorts of special needs and special interests, are open to 18- to 26-year-olds who haven’t visited Israel on prior peer group trips. The goal is to make the experience as meaningful as possible — as well as fun — so that participants will take away a positive feeling.
Since its inception, Birthright has taken 330,000 individuals from 62 countries to Israel. In 2012, 11,745 young people from our area alone participated in the program.
Birthright is not without its critics; some say tour guides sugarcoat some of the country’s problems and complexities. Others worry there’s not enough follow-up when the travelers return.
But we all know scores of Birthright alumni whose lives were touched — and changed — because of the experience.
This end-of-year period — because of school breaks and winter vacations — is a busy time not only for Birthright but for other Israel travel as well. Judging by what’s going on in our community, Israeli excursions appear to be extremely popular this winter — even for those who have to pay for them themselves.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is currently leading a heavily subsidized Mega Mission in Israel, with more than 200 people across the generations enjoying everything the country has to offer. In addition, many area synagogues have organized trips and individual families are there on their own.
Many of these travelers will be experiencing Israel for the first time, just like their Birthright counterparts.
This is good for the lucky travelers, it’s good for Israel and it’s good for our community. The more personal connections we make to the Jewish state, the stronger our bonds and the deeper the sense of peoplehood that emerges.
A new secular year looms before us, a time for new beginnings. So whether you’ve never been before or are a veteran traveler, why not make 2013 the year you fulfill the seder promise of next year in Jerusalem. Happy New Year!