Bad Trip: How Coronavirus Upended Birthright but Proved a Boon for Israel Gap-year Programs

Businesses offering longer-term 'Israel experience' packages for youngsters wanting to study or work in Israel report a major uptick in interest, but Birthright has the summertime blues

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Young Diaspora Jews enjoying a Birthright trip in 2017.
Young Diaspora Jews enjoying a Birthright trip in 2017. Credit: Birthright
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Over the past two decades, Birthright trips have been a virtual rite of passage for young Diaspora Jews. These free, 10-day tours of Israel continued even during periods of war and terror attacks. Sometimes, out of concern for the safety of participants, parts of the country would be deemed off-limits. And sometimes, the famous Birthright buses were more empty than full. But never in its 20-year history has Birthright been forced to suspend its trips.

Until the coronavirus outbreak.

In mid-March, Birthright – often hailed as the most successful Jewish World project ever – announced that it was halting all trips to Israel, with plans to resume them in June. But as June approached, and with the pandemic still not under control, the organization notified would-be candidates that all trips through the end of July would be postponed, with plans to resume in August. Registration for these late summer trips was scheduled to open on Tuesday. However, on the Birthright website, the earliest scheduled trips only begin in September.

When asked how trips could resume if Israel continues to impose a 14-day quarantine period on all individuals entering the country, a spokesperson for the organization said: “It’s too early for us to say how trips will look from now, but we will let you know once we do.”

Birthright is arguably the best-known brand of a much larger “Israel experience” industry that has flourished in recent years. Programs falling into this category all share a belief that the best way to engage Diaspora Jews with Israel is to take them there. Some of these programs, like Birthright, are free, while others are subsidized, and range in length from 10 days to a year. They incorporate travel, study and, when possible, encounters – mifgashim – with real-life Israelis, so that the experience is not only about place but also about people.

But what happens when travel to Israel is extremely difficult, if not impossible, like during this health crisis?

For programs like Birthright, the challenge has been enormous. Indeed, the COVID-19 outbreak has exposed the weakness of Birthright’s model, says Elan Ezrachi, head of the graduate program in Jewish Peoplehood at the University of Haifa.

“In some ways, Birthright is the victim of its own success,” says Ezrachi, who served as the first CEO of Masa, which brings thousands of Diaspora Jews to Israel each year on longer-term educational, volunteer and internship programs. “Basically, it’s an enterprise based on a single product – free, 10-day trips to Israel. It judges its success on the number of participants it brings: the more participants, the more successful it is. But once it can’t deliver the product, it’s doomed.”

Elan Ezrachi. “In some ways, Birthright is the victim of its own success.” Credit: Courtesy of Elan Ezrachi

Birthright would not agree to make any of its executives available for an interview about how it plans to face the challenges posed by the pandemic. It sufficed with an email from its spokeswoman, stating that the organization had shifted its focus to engaging young Jewish adults online. “Our projects include online seminars, video campaigns, seders online, volunteering opportunities, photo contest, Birthright Israel connect, live videos and more content that constantly engages our audience,” she wrote in an email.

Key difference

But not all Israel experience programs are in the same situation. In fact, some even anticipate a coronavirus-related bonanza.

The key difference between these programs and Birthright is their duration: They are long enough to accommodate the 14-day quarantine period for participants that is currently required of every individual landing in Israel.

Youngsters walking through Tel Aviv during a Birthright trip in 2017.Credit: Birthright

Last week, the Interior Ministry announced that any participants in programs that require student visas who had left Israel during the pandemic and now wanted to return would be able to do so, provided their visas were still valid and they had a place to self-quarantine for 14 days. This would include international students enrolled at Israeli universities, yeshivas and seminaries, as well as any programs overseen and subsidized by Masa.

Participants in Masa programs receive a special “Masa visa” that allows them to work after they have completed their programs. To be eligible for such a visa, an applicant must be able to prove that he or she qualifies for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. (The Law of Return confers citizenship on any individual born to a Jewish mother, married to a Jew, or converted in an established Jewish community.)

Masa has announced that it is working with the Interior Ministry to obtain visas for participants in programs scheduled to begin in September. Typically, participants would apply for these visas themselves at Israeli consulates abroad. But because many consulates are not currently open or are understaffed, Masa has reached an agreement that will allow each program to apply for the visas on behalf of its participants directly through the Interior Ministry offices in Israel. Each program is responsible, in turn, for organizing places for participants to quarantine themselves upon arrival.

Masa CEO Ofer Gutman notes with pride that many of the programs supervised by his organization continued to operate during the pandemic, even as they moved indoors in compliance with social distancing requirements.

“Around the world, internship and study abroad programs were being canceled – as were volunteer activities like the Peace Corps,” he says. “So Masa was unique not only in Israel but I’d say in the entire world, in that we kept on going.”

Of the 7,500 participants in Masa programs who were in Israel at the start of the outbreak, he reports, more than 4,000 chose to remain in the country.

Gutman says that registration for programs scheduled to open next year has been booming – more than double the numbers from this time last year – as young Diaspora Jews, mainly in the United States, consider alternatives to universities back home given the likelihood that classrooms will remain closed next semester.

With unemployment skyrocketing abroad, Gutman adds, many will also be seeking professional development opportunities that can provide them with an advantage in a challenging job market.

“In many ways it’s similar to what happened in 2008 and 2009, when there were lots of layoffs in America and many young people out of college who couldn’t find jobs,” Gutman recalls. “I think many post-college Jews from America will use this opportunity to take on internships in Israel that could add a nice line to their CVs.”

Good time for a gap year

Bina, a movement for Jewish education and social activism, runs Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, a 10-month program, as well as a gap-year program for Diaspora Jews that is modeled on the popular pre-military leadership programs that exist around Israel.

Participants on a Bina program in Tel Aviv.Credit: Bina

Dan Herman, international director of the Tel Aviv-based movement, reports “an explosion of interest” in Bina’s gap-year program for next year. He says he is optimistic that it will get off the ground as planned, now that visa issues appear to have been worked out. By contrast, Herman worries that despite “tons of interest” in the teaching fellows program (which is modeled on Teach for America), it might not move forward for reasons out of his control: expected budget cuts from the Israeli Education Ministry, which partly finances the program, and the requirement for criminal background checks for all participants, which is impossible in certain places because of coronavirus-related shutdowns.

Kate Nachman heads Year Course, a popular Young Judaea gap-year program. She says registration is “easily up 30 to 40 percent” for next year, and she plans to open in September as usual if flights are allowed to land in Israel. Otherwise, her contingency plan is that Year Course will open with a delay.

“With all the news that colleges will probably be online for the next semester, if not the entire year, we are seeing lots of people say: ‘Maybe I should take that gap year after all,’” Nachman relays.

Year Course participants with Mel Reisfield, center, in 2016. The educator taught the first-ever Year Course students back in 1956.Credit: My Israel Photos

Yossi Garr, director of Nativ, the gap-year program run by the Conservative movement, also reports a spike in registration in recent weeks. “Every day we’re getting requests for information and applications from new people,” he says. “We’ve even started running information sessions, which is not something we usually do at this time of year, but because of all the interest we decided to.”

Explaining the growing appeal of a gap-year program like his, Garr says: “It’s a choice between spending your first year of college at home in your basement on a laptop or studying at Hebrew University, which is a real academic opportunity, along with all the social aspects that come with a program in Israel. And in conversations with students, they’re saying very clearly that they’re nervous about going to a college where they’re not going to have the college experience they’re looking for.”

In recent years, some 55 young Jews from North America have participated in Nativ yearly. Garr says he expects more for the upcoming year: “Over 70 would be a fair assumption,” he says.

In a typical year, about 2,300 international students are enrolled in programs at Tel Aviv University: semester abroad programs, summer programs and full-degree programs, all of them in English. The university already had to cancel its summer programs, disappointing 600 international students who had already enrolled. But Maureen Meyer, director of the university’s international programs, is optimistic about the coming academic year.

“More people are applying to our degree programs than ever before,” she says. “I think one of the reasons is that people see Israel as a relatively safe place to be. Very often, our competition would have been universities in Europe – Spain and Italy, for example. But unfortunately, those countries have had a much tougher time with the coronavirus.

“We’re also seeing a lot of interest from students in India, who might otherwise have chosen to study in the United States but, I guess, assume there’s a better chance that they’ll be able to study inside a classroom if they come to Israel,” she adds.

International students on the Tel Aviv University campus, May 2020.Credit: TAU International

A key advantage of Israeli universities, Meyer notes, is that they start the school year later – in mid-to-late October, as opposed to late August in the United States. “This extra time works in our favor,” she says, “because we’ve seen just in recent weeks how quickly things develop with this pandemic.”

Virtual reality

Honeymoon Israel, a subsidized, 10-day trip to Israel for newlyweds, is more or less in the same (love) boat as Birthright. All its trips have been canceled until further notice.

“Right now, we’re doing everything virtually, like classes and celebrations. But our next step is to hold live events, like Shabbatonim, for alumni in different cities in the United States,” says Honeymoon Israel founder and CEO Avi Rubel. “As soon as things open and we’re able to bring groups to Israel again, we anticipate being back at capacity,” he adds.

Unlike Birthright or Honeymoon Israel, Onward Israel is geared toward young adults who have already visited the country and are interested in more immersive educational, enrichment and internship programs. Most of its programs span eight to 10 weeks and are tailored for the summer months. According to Vice President for Education Scott Copeland, Onward Israel had planned on bringing 2,600 participants in its programs to Israel this summer. All of them were canceled.

“What we’ll be doing instead is running remote programs, trying to connect people who would have been coming this summer with Israeli companies as long-distance interns,” he says. “And alongside that, through Zoom and other technologies, offer a whole array of classes – whether on Jewish identity or on Israeli politics and culture.”

Copeland is confident that Onward Israel will be able to bring anywhere between 400 and 500 people to Israel for its winter programs starting in November, and by next summer “get back on the horse.”

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