The Other Right of Birthright

by Stephen Muss

I recently read in eJewish Philanthropy about the wonderful, exciting announcement of extraordinary support for Birthright by the Israel Government.

I congratulate those who were responsible for this recognition of what Birthright has done – 300,000 college age students to spend 10 days in Israel for free, all included, with a concentrated exposure to Israelis and Israeli life.

It’s important to bring to light the fine print for Birthright eligibility: the formula of discrimination, exclusion and ‘penalty’ against the Jewish teens whose parents, God-forbid, felt it was important to send them on a high school age experience in Israel. Why should parents be faced with this decision to either fork out money for high school age trips to Israel or wait until “Birthright” age, when it can be free? Who can ever argue with free?

This kind of competition in the mishpucha is not a healthy one and surely I am not the only one out there in the Jewish world who can see it. When Birthright was established years ago, it achieved almost instant success and was supported not only by the Israel government but also by outstanding philanthropists originating in the United States and around the Diaspora. Birthright became the darling of Jewish philanthropy and support. However, let’s look at the other side of the shekel.

The enrollment of the high school-age programs suffered, of which there are literally dozens, bringing teens from all over the world to Israel for various lengths of time – anywhere from 3 weeks to 5 months. Lapid, the new Coalition for High School Age Programs in Israel, of which I am Honorary Chairman, is testament to the fact that 500,000 teens who have experienced Israel through a Lapid program, have made an enormous impact on the fabric of Jewish community leadership in Diasporas worldwide – and without a shekel from the Government of Israel.

Let us not forget that until the year 2000, educational travel to Israel took place mostly during the high school age years. The 1990’s were the golden era for such programs. In the year 2000, the best year in the history of high school age programs, it is estimated that approximately 20,000 teens came to Israel on organized programs. Today, Lapid, which represents a group of some 30 leading Jewish organizations that organize and operate travel programs for high school age Jewish youth, brings between 12,000-15,000 participants to Israel every year. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can compare with an educational trip to Israel during the high school years, when identity formation is most acute. It is widely accepted that an Israel experience which takes place during these formative teenage years leads to a stronger and more effective experience, strengthening ties with Israel for the long term. I say this as a father and a grandfather of children who are alumni from such programs, and as Chairman of the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, which has been operating for decades, and has brought over 20,000 students alone.

That being said, the organized Jewish world and the Government of Israel should have a vested interest in larger numbers of Jewish teens coming to Israel during their high school years. Why? Because when less teens travel to Israel during the high school period the Jewish community loses masses of teens who can engage with Israel earlier; fewer Jewish teens enter college with readiness and motivation to be engaged; and the Jewish world suffers as a result. We lose our youth. Lapid (Hebrew for torch) was established out of necessity so that these high school age programs continue to survive – and thrive – for the betterment of Jewish communities worldwide. For as long as the Government continues to pump enormous amounts of money into Birthright – at the expense of and detriment to the high school age programs – we will be losing the battle.

Lapid has been the neglected child in this family, but my goal is to see an end to this neglect and I would hope, for the sake of Jewish survival, that others will support and recognize the cause.

As a result of Lapid’s concentrated efforts, Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Minister Yuli Edelstein, Natan Sharansky, Alan Hoffmann, Jerry Silverman, and countless others have all extolled the virtues of Lapid and the teenage experience. This is one step in the right direction. They have committed to startup money ($1 million, which has yet to be forthcoming) to show that Lapid can increase the number of its participants. We have already proven ourselves and we can only advance in recruiting Jewish teens on high school age programs if the Israel Government, JAFI and philanthropists start to treat Lapid the same way as they treat Birthright. Birthright is not a quick miracle cure for Jewish survival and Jewish continuity. Forces need to be joined so that together, we will truly revolutionize young Jews around the Diaspora.

Stephen Muss is Honorary Chairman of Lapid and Chairman of the Alexander Muss High School in Israel.