Thousands of Jewish college students -- including more than 200 from Maryland -- will head to Israel as 2000 dawns next month, for free.
Their trips will be paid for by Birthright Israel, a philanthropic initiative geared to reconnecting an increasingly assimilated young Jewish population with its religious homeland. The program's ultimate goal -- to provide an "Israel experience" to every young Jew.
The first wave of Birthright trips, offered to college and graduate students, has attracted a flurry of interest.
Hillel of Greater Baltimore will accompany 120 students from Goucher College, the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, along with a handful of graduate students.
It had to turn away 120 applicants. Hillel at the University of Maryland, College Park will send 80 students, and Baltimore Zionist District, 40.
At Goucher, 45 students signed up for the 22 Hillel spots available.
"There are definitely a lot of secular Jews here who aren't interested in religion," said Miriam Steinberg, a Goucher sophomore who is going on the trip and is co-president of the campus Hillel. "But when you say we have a free trip to Israel, no strings attached, it's amazing what can happen."
The program, which aims to raise $210 million, is funded by a group of Jewish charities, led by Seagram Co. Co-chairman Charles Bronfman, his wife, Andrea, and retired Wall Street money manager Michael Steinhardt. The Israeli government has committed $70 million over the next five years, hoping to recoup its investment with the increased tourism.
Students will float in the Dead Sea and try the night life in Tel Aviv. Some will scale Mount Masada to watch the sunrise. The entire group will meet in Jerusalem on Jan. 8 to hear a speech by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and to attend a rock concert.
The Birthright program might be new, but the problem of the disconnection of young Jews is not.
In the first part of the 20th century, Jewish summer camps were the primary mechanism for getting American Jews reconnected with tradition, said Pamela S. Nadell, a professor of history and director of the Jewish Studies program at American University.
In the 1960s, the focus turned to the young state of Israel. Jewish groups, including the local Hillel and the Baltimore Zionist District, began leading trips there, subsidizing part of the cost.
"Before they went, many [students] were not really aware of their identity," said Pini Shimon, acting executive director of the Zionist district. "They see that they're part of a bigger nation."
But the trips have been out of reach for many, such as Ellen and Steve Deckelbaum of Owings Mills.
"We've always thought about it, but we've never been able to afford it, family-wise," Ellen Deckelbaum said. Their son Josh, who attends Elon College in North Carolina, will be going with Shimon's group.
The program has not been without controversy. The trips are offered to students regardless of whether their parents could afford to send them, leading some commentators to question the investment when the Jewish world has pressing social needs.
While praising the intent of the program, William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York City, pointed to the summer camps his organization runs for needy Jewish young people. The camps provide connections to Judaism for much less than a trip to Israel, and "there are so many kids that we're unable to help," he said.
Michael Papo, executive vice president of Birthright Israel North America in New York, pointed out that Steinhardt and the Bronfmans have supported other causes generously, including Jewish summer camps.
The most important thing Birthright provides is not money, Papo said, but opportunity. It puts Israel on the radar screen for families who might be able to afford to go, but simply had never considered making the trip.
Sam Kanner, a sophomore at Hopkins, was raised in a Reform home, where her parents reserved religious observance mainly for important holidays. As Kanner got older, she became interested in learning about Jewish traditions -- and in seeing Israel.
"When I heard I was going, I was flipping out. I was screaming, partially because it was a free trip, and partially because I was going to get to go to Israel," Kanner said. "I think identifying myself culturally will happen in Israel."