June 18, 2004
By: Rachel Pomerance
NEW YORK, (JTA) - Move over birthright Israel: There's a new plan to bring Diaspora youth to the Jewish state.
In fact, the Jewish Agency for Israel is launching its largest-ever educational project to infuse young Jews with the spirit of Zionism.
But unlike birthright israel - which gives Diaspora youth a jolt of Jewish pride with free, 10-day trips to Israel - the Jewish Agency is betting on a longer Israel experience.
In the coming academic year, the Israeli government is slated to give $10 million to groups that bring Jewish 18- to 26-year olds from around the world to Israel on educational programs that last at least five months.
With each passing year, the Israeli government will increase its contribution by $10 million a year, with a matching grant from sources assembled by the Jewish Agency. The program will level off indefinitely at $50 million a year from both Israel and the Jewish Agency.
While subsidies to students will be granted on the basis of need, the idea is to halve the costs of Israel study programs to encourage 18- to 26-year-old Jews to study in Israel.
While the Jewish Agency relies, in large measure, on funding from the North American Jewish federation system, it plans to diversify its funding sources for this project.
The agency plans to come up with its portion through foundations and philanthropists, its own budget and organizations that run Israel programs, said Alan Hoffmann, director general of the agency's department for Jewish Zionist education.
Participants must enroll in education programs approved by the agency, and also volunteer in community service programs.
Eligible programs would include universities, kibbutz and Hebrew study programs, Zionist yeshivas, youth movements and programs affiliated with the religious streams.
Funds will go to the organizations or, in the case of universities, to the students directly, said Michael Jankelowitz, the Jewish Agency's spokesman.
Ultimately, the agency hopes to ground the youths' identities in Zionism and encourage them to make an investment in Israel.
"It's something that is going to change the culture, the tradition of youngsters" all over the world, said Amos Hermon, chair of the agency's education committee.
"A meaningful year of Israel- this is the most effective factor as far as encouraging aliyah" and participation in Jewish communal life, Hermon told JTA. "The best lobbyists and the best advocates of the State of Israel's interests are those graduates that spent a year in Israel."
On June 16, the Knesset Finance Committee approved an initial $2.5 million for the Jewish Agency's "long-term program initiative," slated to begin this fall.
The agency's Board of Governors is expected to approve the plan at its meetings in Jerusalem this week.
In the meantime, the Jewish Agency has begun presenting the program to local federations and Jewish community centers across North America. It already has allocated $400,000 for marketing to groups like Zionist youth groups and yeshivas that run Israel programs, Hermon said.
In the pilot 2004-2005 year, funds will go to groups for marketing, recruitment and subsidies.
"Depending on how the money is going to be used, I think it will allow us to provide scholarships," said Neil Weidberg, director of Israel programs for Hadassah's Young Judaea organization.
Ultimately, the program's impact will "add legitimacy to the idea of taking a year off" in Israel, Weidberg said. "It will be more accepted within the Jewish community."
Weidberg expressed concern about whether the American groups really will get enough support to make the program a reality, but he lauded the concept.
Stephen Hoffman, president and CEO of United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for the North American Jewish federation system, thinks an energetic response from youth might drive federation support.
"I think it's one of those situations of ‘If we build it, I hope they come.' And if they come, I hope the federations will do their share to make it possible," he said.
"It has the potential to become a very important opportunity in our ambition to forge tighter connections between the Jews of the Diaspora and the people of Israel, and also I think it could become a very important tool in the development of young leadership for the future of the Jewish community of the Diaspora," Hoffman said.
There currently are 4,000 non-Israeli Jews studying in Israel in all types of programs, mostly in yeshivas. The Jewish Agency wants to quintuple that number by 2008, Hermon said.
The official launch is slated to take place at the Prime Minister's Office in a few weeks, Jankelowitz said.
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