The Taglit-Birthright Israel program has expanded eligibility for its free 10-day trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18-26, JNS.org has learned. Teenagers who went on an educational trip to Israel during high school were previously not eligible for Birthright trips, but can now participate, confirmed Noa Bauer, Birthright’s vice president of international marketing.
Birthright’s eligibility guidelines previously stated, “If you have been to Israel before but only with your family or on other personal business, you are still eligible. However, if you have been to Israel as part of a touring group, educational program, study program or an organized extended residential program since you were 12 years old, you are not eligible.”
While those who have taken educational trips to Israel after turning 18 are still not eligible for Birthright, youths who took such trips before 18 can now go on Birthright from ages 18-26, Bauer told JNS.org.
“I think everybody thought about [the change in the eligibility guidelines] for many years, and everybody wanted to have it,” Bauer said. “It was a matter of funding, and I think today you see more anti-Israel things on campus, and we realized over the years that people that have been to Israel again have more confidence for talking about Israel, and geopolitics, and anything pertaining to Israel after visiting with Birthright Israel. I think we’re one of the best platforms to do that for college students.”
The change in guidelines—approved Wednesday by Birthright’s steering committee and proposed by the committee’s chairman, Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett—will go into effect this summer.
“Taglit proved itself as a leading agent in strengthening Jewish identity among young people in the Diaspora and in building ties to the State of Israel,” Bennett said. “Taglit alumni are our best ambassadors, and the journey they experience in Israel equips them with the best tools to represent Israel abroad. Expanding their number and opening eligibility will allow Taglit to continue having a positive influence on the Jewish world.”
Rabbi Dave Felsenthal, director of the Orthodox Union’s Israel Free Spirit/Taglit-Birthright program, said in a statement, “For years, our most involved students had to give up on Birthright to go on a high school trip. Now our best students can also get the awesome Birthright experience as their second trip to Israel.”
Felsenthal said his Birthright program now expects “many more applicants than ever before.”
In the 13-plus years since philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt joined forces with the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency for Israel, global Jewish communities, and other philanthropists to fund Birthright, the program has taken about 350,000 young Jews to Israel.
Birthright recently said that more than 17,000 Jewish young adults would participate in its trips this season, the largest number of winter participants for Birthright since the program was founded in 2000. The program expects to reach 50 percent of Jewish young adults worldwide over the next five years.
A series of studies by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies have shown that former Birthright participants are 42 percent more likely to feel “very much” connected to Israel compared to people who didn’t go on the trip. Program participants are also more likely to belong to a religious congregation than those who did not attend Birthright, and participants are also slightly more likely than non-participants to make charitable contributions to Jewish or Israeli causes, according to the Cohen Center research.
“The evidence is clear that Taglit inspires a stronger sense of Jewish identity,” Brandeis University professor Leonard Saxe, a chief author of the research and director of the Cohen Center, told JNS.org last summer for a story on Birthright’s 13th anniversary. While the Cohen Center surveys didn’t ask directly about leadership, it’s clear that Birthright “produces a desire to be part of the Jewish community,” according to Saxe.
Matthew Putterman, a 24-year-old analyst for a real estate financial services firm in Houston who went on Birthright in 2010, told JNS.org last year, “The sense of global Jewish community developed during Birthright definitely helped to substantiate my initial feelings of wanting to help if at all possible.”
Philanthropists Sheldon and Miriam Adelson have donated $180 million to Birthright.
“Exposing young Jews to Israel helps broaden their awareness and deepen their cultural identity,” Miriam Adelson has said.
Dozens of countries looking to connect Diasporas with their motherlands are taking notice of Birthright, according to Gidi Mark, the program’s CEO. Mark told JNS.org last year that he attended a conference in Dublin, Ireland “where everybody was talking about Birthright-Israel as a pioneer in this.”
“We were approached already by countries like Bulgaria… and we are happy to help those who approach us,” Mark said.