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December 21, 2011
A Seat on the Bus
It's no secret that Birthright Israel is one of the most successful innovations of the American Jewish community over the past decade.
What's not so well-known --unless you're a parent of a child who's been shut out -- is that each go-round, only some 40 percent of the young adults who seek a coveted spot on the free tour through the Jewish state actually secure a seat on a bus.
Since its official launch in 2000, the Birthright initiative has brought nearly 300,000 young adults from around the world, 80 percent of them from North America, on the 10-day excursion.
By all accounts, the trips for many of the 18-26 year-old participants are inspiring and in some cases transformative. An untold number of Birthright alumni have returned to their college campuses to connect Jewishly and stand up for Israel. Others have sought work in the Jewish professional arena. Still others have been so profoundly moved by their experiences that they have chosen to make aliyah. In between are the thousands of Jews who found Jewish inspiration, a spark that set them on their first steps of a meaningful Jewish journey.
But while the program is free for the lucky participants, it still costs -- $3,000 per young adult, to be precise.
The initiative was launched by a small group, led by Michael Steinhardt and other mega-philanthropists, who had the vision to see the potential of what a trip to the Jewish state could mean for a generation that was alarmingly disconnected from Jewish life in general and Israel in particular.
The program quickly morphed into a partnership among the philanthropists, the Israeli government and the Jewish federation system. But the funding could not keep up with the demand.
To help address the gap, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which has long supported Birthright as part of its annual allocations, has launched a special campaign in partnership with the Birthright Israel Foundation.
The goal is to raise as many dollars as possible by the end of the year to take advantage of a matching dollar-for-dollar grant offered by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, who together have contributed $100 million to the program since 2007. Beyond that, the Federation hopes to create a $15 million endowment that will generate hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund even more participants.
Already, some 10,000 local young adults have traveled on Birthright programs. The goal is to guarantee a seat on the bus to every Philadelphia-area young adult who wants one.
It's not a panacea -- and follow-up programs must also be a priority -- but Birthright has a proven track record of bolstering both Jewish identity and a connection to Israel. It's a win-win investment in the future of our next generation.