While changing Birthright Israel’s eligibility requirements to include young adults who previously participated on a teen Israel experience appears to be a worthy addition to the ubiquitous free trip program, it is, in fact, a mirage and a misstep.
The change has the appearance of bringing more young people to Israel, but because the experience will be duplicated, increased participation is an illusion. A second free trip is not a bad thing. The misstep is that the precious funding can and should be used to actually increase the number of participants who have not been to Israel simply by lowering the minimum age of eligibility from 18 to 16. This would be consistent with Birthright Israel’s goal of getting as many young Jewish adults to Israel as possible.
Expanding the program’s minimum age to 16 would dramatically boost teenage enrollment, especially among the approximately 70-plus percent of underserved Jewish teens who are not involved in an intensive Jewish experience, including Jewish overnight camp or Jewish day school. This change would enable an explosion of exciting pre- and post-trip Jewish programming, which is difficult for Birth-right to provide effectively, including Israel advocacy, leadership development, public speaking training, conversational Hebrew classes and more.
A life-changing teen Israel trip before entering college prepares and empowers teenagers to deal with the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism on college campuses, enabling them to stand up to protestors, rather than run from them. Jewish life on campus would become a priority in college searches, spurring interest in Hillel, Jewish studies courses and semesters spent in Israel.
Our community’s Youth to Israel Adventure (Y2I), the most successful community teen Israel experience in North America per capita, is proof of the impact a free trip has on the rate of participation. We send an average of 100 Jewish teens, ages 16 and 17, to Israel every year on a fully subsidized community trip. This represents more than 60 percent of the identified pool of Jewish teens in our community of the North Shore of Massachusetts, with an estimated Jewish population of 16,500.
We provide exciting pre- and post-trip programming for teens and parents focused on Israel. We take full advantage of having access to our teens for two years before they go to college, providing them with opportunities to engage educationally and socially. Key to our success is the full subsidy. The subsidy is made possible by a winning combination of funders — the Lappin Foundation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and more than 800 donors and business that support our annual campaign.
The Lappin Foundation calls upon Birthright Israel to lower the minimum age requirement to 16. This would reverse the trend of declining Israel attachment among young people, as reported in the Pew study. The outcome will be a Jewishly stronger, Jewishly prouder and more connected- to-Israel generation than we now have. Jewish continuity will be assured.
Robert Israel Lappin is president and Deborah L. Coltin is executive director of the Lappin Foundation in Salem, Mass.