A new government initiative could effectively double the number of Taglit-Birthright participants traveling to Israel within a few years.
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The initiative, drawn up in the past year by the Prime Minister’s Office with the assistance of the Jewish Agency and Jewish leaders, will be announced in Jerusalem at a conference scheduled for October. It aims to further strengthen ties between Israel and Jewish communities around the world.
In an interview with Haaretz, Jewish Agency Director-General Alan Hoffmann said the new initiative reflected the government’s wish to step up Israel’s involvement in the Jewish world. The plan, he said, was based on four key components: Expanding Israeli presence on university campuses abroad; increasing the number of Israeli educators in Jewish institutions abroad; increasing the number of young immigrants in professions deemed required for the Israeli economy; and increasing participation of young Jewish adults in Israel experience programs.
Hoffman said he hopes that the new initiative would help to eliminate the long waiting lists to come to Israel on Birthright. Since the program was launched 13 years ago, it has brought roughly 350,000 young Jews from around the world to Israel on free, 10-day trips. In recent years, the number of participants has plateaued at about 40,000 a year and not grown beyond that because of budgetary constraints. For the 21,000 spots available on its summer 2013 trips, for example, Birthright received 32,872 applications. For the 20,033 spots it had available on its summer 2012 trip, it received 37,319 applications.
If the objective of the initiative is to eliminate the waiting list for trips, that could effectively increase the number of Birthright participants traveling to Israel each year by tens of thousands. Another key component of the initiative is providing special incentives for young high-tech professionals to immigrate to Israel. This would mark a departure from government immigration policy hitherto, which has never favored members of one professional group over another.
“Looking at the Israeli economy over next 10-15 years, one of the inhibiting factors is that in some of the most successful areas, including high-tech, we are not generating enough trained people to meet the expanding needs of the economy,” said Hoffmann
The estimated cost of the project currently stands at $300 million. Hoffmann said, however, that this is only a preliminary figure and that it would begin at a much smaller cost. According to the plan, Israel would cover one-third of the expenses and the rest would be covered by donations - a model similar to that used to finance Birthright.
Would Israeli taxpayers be willing to finance such an initiative? Hoffmann believes so. “I think that we have witnessed over the past 15 years a change in paradigm,” he said.
Since Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, Hoffmann argued, Israeli heads of state have shown more willingness to invest in improving ties between Israel and young Jews around the world. Israeli leaders, he added, see world Jews as a “strategic asset.” Hoffmann praised Netanyahu for drafting the initiative and said it represented his “commitment to take this paradigm shift to the next level.
The new initiative will probably not be launched before early 2015 because of Israeli budgetary constraints and preparatory work required abroad. “It is conceivable that within the next 18 months, there will be some attempts to create a pilot to test some of the hypotheses in this initiative,” said Hoffmann.