Less than a day after Haaretz reported that a key Birthright trip provider has been promoting extension stays at a Jerusalem hostel run by an extremist rabbi with ties to radical factions of the settler movement, its website was updated to remove any reference to the facility.
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Israel Free Spirit, one of about a dozen certified Birthright trip providers, had been offering its participants the opportunity to extend their stays in Israel free of charge at the Jerusalem Heritage House, a hostel run by Ben Packer – an American-born rabbi who took over the facility a few years ago. The Heritage House encourages its guests to volunteer in illegal West Bank outposts.
Asked for comment, Israel Free Spirit said it had not been promoting the Heritage House as an extension program “for the past two-and-a-half years.”
“We have updated our website to accurately represent the extensions we currently promote,” a statement issued by the trip provider said. “This was done at our own initiative. Birthright Israel did not instruct us on the matter.”
Asked to explain why the Heritage House was promoted on the website until just one day earlier, Israel Free Spirit responded: “That is correct. We realized yesterday that our website wasn’t updated.”
When asked what exactly it was doing to promote the facility two and a half years earlier, the company did not respond.
A spokeswoman for Birthright said the organization would not issue any comment on the matter.
Birthright brings young Jewish adults on free, 10-day trips to Israel. Israel Free Spirit, one of its longtime providers, is run by the U.S.-based Orthodox Union and also has ties to Aish Hatorah, a well-known Orthodox outreach movement.
Israel Free Spirit not only removed the reference to the Heritage House but also to several other extension programs it had been promoting at yeshivas in Jerusalem.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Birthright participants have taken advantage of the offer to stay at the Heritage House for free and participate in activities Packer promotes, according to sources with extensive knowledge of its operations.
The Heritage House website indicates that its program includes tours, seminars and volunteer opportunities. The “service projects” promoted by the hostel are undertaken exclusively in West Bank settlements and the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
The Heritage House extension program is free. Before it was updated, however, the Israel Free Spirit website stated that participants could only be reimbursed for accommodations and for the costs of changing their flights out of the country “if they complete the week-long course.”
Among the recent “service projects” showcased on the Heritage House website are picking grapes at the illegal outposts of Pnei Kedem and Kida, planting olive groves in the illegal outpost of Esh Kodesh, digging drainage trenches and building foundations for homes in a new neighborhood of Kfar Tapuah – one of the most radical West Bank settlements – and helping Jewish families move into properties in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Israel Free Spirit was the only certified Birthright trip provider that promoted the Heritage House on its website, but many Birthright participants who extend their trips and stay at the hostel come through other providers.