Thursday, January 23, 2014

Taglit Birthright Israel Changes Policy

Part of my job as the associate director of University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in the mid-Aughts was to interview college students for Birthright Israel. On several occasions I had the unfortunate responsibility to explain to Jewish students eager to claim their free 10-day Israel trip that they did not qualify because they had already traveled to Israel with a peer educational trip. That meant that because their parents had spent upwards of $6,000 for them to spend a month in the Jewish Holy Land, they couldn't claim the Jewish community's gift that their peers were getting -- a completely free Israel experience. It was as if they were being punished for having experienced Israel in high school or on an eighth grade trip with their Jewish day school.

Birthright Israel does 180 on previous Peer Educational Trip Experience Policy

Today, however, Taglit-Birthright Israel significantly changed its policy regarding Jewish youth who had already visited Israel on a peer tour. On the Birthright Israel Facebook page, the world-wide organization posted, "Guess What? Those who participated on peer educational trips to Israel prior to turning 18 years of age are now welcome to apply! Taglit-Birthright Israel will have specific details on eligibility posted on the website the week prior to registration opening on February 19th, 2014."

This is very welcome news for so many families who knew that their children traveling to Israel with their Jewish day school, Jewish youth group or Jewish summer camp would immediately preclude them from Birthright Israel eligibility.

I think this will bode well for Jewish youth groups and Jewish summer camps as well. After the economic downturn of 2008, many Jewish families dissuaded their teens from traveling to Israel on organized travel programs with youth groups like BBYO, USY, NCSY or NFTY because they knew that in the future their children wouldn't be able to qualify for a Birthright trip.

I remember several years ago encouraging Jewish teens in the ATID (Alliance for Teens in Detroit) program, which I directed, to sign up for the Metro Detroit Teen Mission to Israel. Some of the teens said their parents wouldn't let them register because they would then have to miss out on claiming their free trip to Israel during college with Birthright.

In December 2004 I led a Birthright trip to Israel made up of half University of Michigan students and half Harvard University students. One thing that immediately became clear to me when I met these students was that the vast majority of them had not been involved in any youth groups or Jewish summer camps that had organized teen tours to Israel. Their peers who had traveled to Israel on community-wide missions like the Teen Mission in Michigan, or had visited Israel with a Jewish summer camp like Ramah or a youth group trip with USY, had to be turned down from applying to a Birthright trip.

This is great news and I'm happy to hear it. Of course, I feel bad for all the thousands of Jewish kids who weren't able to go on a free Birthright Israel trip, but looking at it optimistically thousands of Jewish kids will be able to go back to Israel who under the former policy wouldn't have been.

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