Birthright Program Sends Young Jews to Israel on Group Trips, Free of Charge

July 12, 2008

Author: David Haldane

Source: The Los Angeles Times,0,4601464.story

Ben Narynski recently flew home to a place he'd never been.

"It's like a hometown to me," the Fullerton resident said of the country he traversed by bus with 39 other young adults and a medic carrying a gun.

Visible from the vehicle's windows were the olive orchards and fig trees of Israel, a land he grew up hearing about but had never before seen. The 24-year-old veterinarian is one of about 27,000 young Jews from 33 countries making the pilgrimage this summer free of charge. As a descendant of Hebrews, he said, "you have to visit at least once in your lifetime, and this is the perfect time. I feel guilty that I haven't been there before."

Organizers estimate that by September, more than 190,000 young people -- about 75% of them Americans -- will have made the trip as guests of Taglit-Birthright Israel, a program founded in 1999 to connect young Jews to their ancestral homeland and to the Jewish community worldwide.

This year the program, often known simply as Birthright, is redoubling its efforts in observance of the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding.

"We've tried to touch every Jewish community out there," said spokeswoman Deborah Goldberg, adding that "this is the biggest year we've ever had."

Birthright is the brainchild of, among others, Michael Steinhardt, a New York-based investor and philanthropist, who saw what he considered an alarming trend: the increasing disaffection of young, non-Israeli Jews from their culture and community.