December 14, 2000
By Elli Wohlgelernter
(December 14) - The net number of students registering to visit Israel under the Birthright program this winter rose by 400, despite a travel warning by the US State Department. Although 1,000 students cancelled their trips another 400 were added from a waiting list of 8,000 bringing the total on the scheme, organized by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, to 3,400.
Last year 3,000 young people visited Israel on the Birthright/Taglit program, which brings college students to Israel for a 10-day free trip.
The State Department warning combined with TV news footage of unrest has made many students and their parents apprehensive about coming to Israel at this time.
The visitors, who will be coming from 310 campuses, will be in this country from December 28 through January 19. They will be brought by over 30 Zionist, religious and organizational groups, with Hillel coordinating the lion's share.
"It is not surprising that many students chose not to participate in the program," said Jeff Rubin, director of Communications for Hillel. "It is difficult for Americans to distinguish the unrest in the territories from the safety of Israel."
Nevertheless, he said, "based on our meetings with Israeli authorities, we are satisfied that they are doing everything possible to ensure the safest possible experience for Birthright Israel participants. We will be in constant touch with officials throughout the trip and will adjust our itineraries accordingly."
Mindful of the current situation, 17 campuses will be bringing clothing, school supplies, dental supplies, toys and books to present to local schools and charities. Organizers are also including the current state of affairs in their program, adding what they call a "Seventh Conversation," to deal with the changed political reality, to the six talking points used successfully last year to get students to discuss aspects of their Jewishness.
"Those students who are participating in the trip this year will experience the same compelling, celebratory journey experienced by students last year," said Rubin. "They will undoubtedly return home with a new appreciation for Israel and their Jewishness."
In a related development, the Jewish Agency has agreed to pay almost one-third of the cost of bringing 280 students from the former Soviet Union (FSU) and 80 from Hungary, with Birthright paying the balance.
"The difference between Birthright in the FSU and in the United States is that 30 percent in the US is paid by the local federations," said Amos Lahat, head of the FSU Department of the Agency. "But in Russia you don't have a local federation - the local federation is the Jewish Agency. So we will pay for the 30 percent for the youngsters to go to Israel." "It's an important program," Lahat said.
"And for me, the most important thing is, there can never be a difference between a Jewish kid in Siberia and a Jewish kid in Minsk, or Santiago or New York. And just like there's an opportunity for a Jewish kid from the United States, or from Canada, or England to come and visit Israel, so too does a kid from the FSU have to have that opportunity. There can't be two Jewish peoples."
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