At a time when Jewish organizations that offer Israel youth trips are struggling to compete with the free Birthright Israel experience, the Jewish Agency For Israel is working to boost participation even higher, the quasi-governmental agency told Haaretz.
A Jerusalem conference will unveil the initiative, a project of the Jewish Agency and the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that could ultimately cost $300 milion, in October. The target for implementation is early 2015.
Although the initiative seems heavily geared toward encouraging more aliyah, particularly among young Jews seeking high-tech careers, it also encourages greater support for programs for teenagers, says Marilynn Rothstein, a member of the Jewish Funders Network committee of activists and lay leaders hoping to double the number of high school students traveling to Israel.
"Supportive research shows that the most acute period for critical identity formation and ... Jewish identity formation takes place during the teenage years," Rothstein told The Jewish Week in an email in response to the JAFI initiative. "We also know that a quality, experiential program in Israel during high school can have a huge impact on that identity and our youth's long-term connection to Israel."
Director-General Alan Hoffman told Haaretz he hopes to see an increased pro-Israel presence on more diaspora college campuses as well as more Israeli educators working in Jewish institutions as part of an effort to further boost Birthright, the 10-day program that has brought about 350,000 young people between 18 and 26 to Israel. The program currently has a long waiting list and is available only to people who have never before visited Israel on an organized trip.
According to Haaretz, some 32,872 people applied for 21,000 slots for Birthright trips this summer. Hoffman said Netanyahu has made a priority of improving ties between young Jews in the diaspora and Israel, and that Israelis as a whole are willing to invest in the relationship.
Hoffman also said JAFI wants to encourage more young people to make aliyah to work in the soaring high-tech sector that is driving Israel's economic growth, and that Birhright could play a role in that effort.
“Looking at the Israeli economy over next 10 to 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,” he told Haaretz.
Rothstein, who is director of alumni and board development and special programs for the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, told The Jewish Week she hopes the initiative will not only double the number of Birthright participants, but all Israel experience programs, including those that are specifically created for high school students."
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