Bennett Announces New Measures to Bring More Young Jews to Israel

Funding for the expansion of the Taglit-Birthright program, which provides free trips to Israel, is still in question.

Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett on Thursday announced several measures designed to increase the number of participants in Taglit-Birthright, the program that brings young Jewish adults from communities around the world on free 10-day trips to Israel. It is not yet entirely clear, though, from where the funding will come to support this expansion of the program, which could potentially increase annual outlays on Taglit-Birthright by up to 25 percent.

One measure announced would allow individuals who have already participated in high school programs in Israel to be eligible for Taglit-Birthright. Today, with rare exceptions, Taglit-Birthright is only open to candidates who have never traveled to Israel on an educational program. In recent years, the directors of high school programs in Israel have been lobbying the government to lift this restriction on the grounds that it hurts enrollment in their programs, with many potential candidates preferring to wait and take advantage of the free trips through Birthright when they are older.

Another measure would provide increased funding to support greater participation in Birthright among French Jews. On average, only about 100-200 French Jews come to Israel each year on Birthright. According to Israeli government sources, the main reason for this very low turnout – especially compared with other countries – is that French Jewish organizations lack the financial means to support the program. Currently, the Israeli government covers one-third of Taglit’s total budget – about $35 million a year – with the balance coming from private Jewish philanthropists and Jewish organizations in local communities.

Bennett said the new measures would take effect this summer.

“Taglit has proven itself as a leader in strengthening Jewish identity among young people in the Diaspora and building ties with the State of Israel,” Bennett’s office said in a press release announcing the move. “Expanding the participation criteria will add to Taglit’s positive influence in the Jewish world.” Bennett is the chairman of the Taglit-Birthright steering committee.

In response to a question, an aide to Bennett said that the new measures could potentially increase the number of participants in the program each year by up to 10,000. In each of the past two years, Taglit-Birthright has brought roughly 42,000 participants to Israel. The aide said that the government of Israel would not contribute any funding of its own to support this expansion and that all additional funding would come from outside the government.

He said it was not clear how much extra money would be needed to facilitate the new measures. Neither could he say for sure whether any organizations or donors outside the government had already committed to providing extra funding.

The Jewish Agency, which provides financial support to Birthright and which is heavily engaged in recruiting participants in the program, was not prepared to comment on the statement issued by Bennett.

A government committee spearheading a project known as the “Prime Minister’s Initiative” has been at work in recent months formulating proposals for new outreach programs targeting Jewish communities abroad. A key focus of the Prime Minister’s Initiative is expanding participation in Taglit-Birthright. Officials involved in the project were surprised to learn that Bennett had decided to publish an announcement on the matter without consulting with them.

Responding to the new measures, Taglit-Birthright CEO Gidi Mark said: “I am happy the steering committee supports this decision that every young Jew is entitled to an educational tour of Israel. I believe that this decision will strengthen the bond between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora and empower tens of thousands of young Jews in their efforts to portray Israel in a positive light around the world.”

Yael Shachar
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also Minister for Diaspora Affairs, waving.
AP