Taglit-Birthright Israel (Hebrew: תגלית), also known as Birthright Israel or simply Birthright, is a not-for-profit educational organization that sponsors free ten-day heritage trips to Israel, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights for young adults of Jewish heritage, aged 18–32.
|$46.9 million (2011)|
Taglit is the Hebrew word for 'discovery'. During their trip, participants, most of whom are visiting Israel for the first time, are encouraged to discover new meaning in their personal Jewish identity and connection to Jewish history and culture.
Since trips began in the winter of 1999 through 2017, more than 600,000 young people from 67 countries have participated in the program. About 80% of participants are from the United States and Canada. As of 2013, the number of participants had not grown beyond 40,000 a year due to budgetary constraints.
The Birthright Israel program was initiated in 1994 and founded in cooperation with Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, as well as the Israeli government, private donors, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Jewish communities around the world. Tours are held in the winter and summer, for which demand is very high. Registration is conducted online and each round there are usually thousands more applicants than spaces available.
In 2007, annual capacity was increased to 20,000 participants a year. That year, the late Sheldon Adelson pledged $25 million to Birthright Israel to take applicants off waiting lists and to increase annual capacity from 25,000 to 37,000 in 2007 and 2008. The Adelson Family Foundation has contributed many millions of US dollars annually to Birthright Israel since 2007. In 2011, he pledged an additional $5 million toward the effort. In 2013, Adelson doubled his past annual commitment to Birthright Israel, announcing a $20 million challenge grant that matched new and increased gifts or pledges through 2015. This raised Adelson's total support of the program to over $250 million as of February 2015.
In 2010, Birthright launched an extension program called Birthright Excel. Birthright Excel is a 10-week summer program where students can either create a venture or intern with a business.
Eligible individuals are those who have at least one parent of recognized Jewish descent, or who have converted to Judaism through a recognized Jewish movement, and who do not actively practice another religion. They must also be between the ages of 18 to 32, have completed high school, have neither traveled to Israel before on a peer educational trip or study program past the age of 18, nor have lived in Israel past the age of 12 for more than 3-4 months. A Birthright Israel trip includes airfare from major cities, hotels, most meals, all transportation within Israel, and costs associated with touring the country for the ten-day trip. A US$250 deposit is required, which is refunded upon return from the trip. Airfare or transportation from a participant's home to the gateway city is not included, although the trips depart from multiple cities.
Trips are organized by different organizations and companies accredited by Birthright Israel, which sets the logistical, educational, and security standards. All groups are led by licensed Israeli tour guides, all groups are accompanied by an armed security guard, and include visits to the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, as well as other sites determined by Birthright Israel. Tours may vary according to age group and the religious background of the participants. Trips may be geared for graduate students, undergraduates at a particular university, participants from a particular city, participants who identify with a particular stream of Judaism, tours for hiking or music enthusiasts, and a diverse array of other interests, such as trips for the LGBTQ community, campus trips and accessibility trips.
Registration is conducted twice a year, in the winter and summer, and during each round there are thousands more applicants than spaces available. Trips are conducted throughout most of the year.
A Birthright Israel trip includes airfare from major cities, hotel accommodation, two meals per day, security, all transportation within Israel, and other costs associated with touring the country during the ten-day trip.
Tours travel throughout Israel and Jerusalem to religious and cultural sites, including the Western Wall, and the Dead Sea. Trips also often include a Mega Event, which unites thousands of participants from around the world together with Israelis for a celebration featuring speeches by dignitaries and musical performances.
A major feature of the tours is a 5- to 10-day mifgash (Hebrew for 'encounter') with Israeli peers, usually soldiers serving in the Israel Defense Forces, who join the tour. The stated purpose for the mifgash is for the participants and the soldiers to get to know each other and to better understand each other's world view and Jewish identity. Guided discussion sessions explore topics such as the Jewish tradition in the modern world, how Jewish life in Israel differs from Jewish life abroad, and how mandatory military service impacts young Israelis' perceptions of service and commitment to their country. More than 115,000 Israelis have participated in the program since 2000.
Participants have the option to extend their plane ticket for up to three months to explore Israel and the region. The optional extension is not part of the Birthright trip, and the participant is in that time like any tourist.
Security policies in place during the trip "ensure a comprehensive safety umbrella", as follows:
- No travel to the West Bank, Gaza, or East Jerusalem other than the Jewish Quarter of the Old City
- Participants in each group remain together at all times and follow a set schedule of activities
- Participants do not leave the groups to travel, explore or visit with Israelis on their own during the ten-day trip
- Public transportation is not allowed at any time
- At least one highly trained, armed escort accompanies each group throughout the entire trip
Through the end of 2011, the program had an operating budget of $660 million. More than half of the funding comes from philanthropists, among them Charles Bronfman, Edgar Bronfman, Sr., Daniel Och, Marlene Post, Lynn Schusterman, Sheldon Adelson, and Michael Steinhardt. About one-quarter of funding comes from the Government of Israel, and about one-fifth is contributed by Jewish organizations and communities, such as North American Jewish Federations through the United Jewish Communities (UJC), Keren Hayesod, and the Jewish Agency for Israel; and many leading private philanthropists through the Birthright Israel Foundation, including Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt, and Lynn Schusterman. The program also receives funding from the German government, through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
According to the organization, Birthright Israel has contributed more than 2 billion NIS to the Israeli economy.
The Birthright Israel program has been criticized for its pre-trip screening process. According to Rachel Shabi from Salon.com, political opinions may be taken into account: "Potential candidates who are discovered to have a 'hidden agenda' are not allowed onto the [Birthright] trips".
The pro-Palestinian Jewish Voice for Peace runs a campaign called Return the Birthright, which criticizes the Birthright Israel program and urges young Jews to boycott it, stating: "it's unjust that we get a free Birthright trip, while Palestinian refugees can't return to their homes".
In 2007, Birthright established Birthright NEXT, a group that was intended to act as a post-trip follow-up organization to keep youth involved in local Jewish communities after visiting Israel via Birthright. In early 2009 it split into an entity separate from Birthright, though as of 2012 five of six NEXT board members also sat on the Birthright board. Following this separate incorporation, funding from Birthright fell from $6.5 million in 2009 to $968 thousand in 2010 and $702 thousand in 2011. Total NEXT revenue dropped from $8 million in 2009 to $4 million in 2010. This decrease in funding for the alumni programs acted as part of Birthright's increased emphasis on youth Israel trips and reduced emphasis on followup efforts.
For example, Birthright Israel Next sponsored I.D., a performance of monologues by Birthright Israel alumni based on their experiences.
In 2015 Birthright announced the end of Birthright NEXT, suggesting that the alumni outreach program would be replaced by another program aiming to fulfill the same goals.
At an academic symposium on Birthright held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2013, Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University presented evidence that program participants tend to marry later than their peers, and are more likely to marry within the faith than a similar group of Jewish young people who choose not to participate in Birthright. Saxe hypothesizes that participants' delayed marriage age may be motivated by the goal of finding a Jewish spouse. The findings also show that one out of four Birthright participants ends up marrying another Birthright participant.
Birthright Israel has inspired similar programs for other diasporas with similar goals, including Birthright Armenia for the Armenian diaspora, Reconnect Hungary for young adults of the Hungarian diaspora, and Birthright Greece for the Greek diaspora.
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