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Opinion: Birthright should change its policy, and lower the age of eligibility to 16

OCTOBER 19, 2017 – Recently, I was granted a wish to sit with Sheldon Adelson, a giant of the Jewish world, to share what was in my heart. A bonus was sitting with his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, as well.

The purpose of my meeting with the Adelsons, who are the driving force behind the magnificent success of Birthright Israel, was to garner their support for getting Jewish teens to Israel en masse, which can be accomplished by Birthright Israel lowering its age of eligibility to 16 and serving as the funding source to local Jewish communities to organize community teen trips to Israel. Providing an experience for teens with Israel advocacy training during and after the trip is an effective way to combat two troubling and deeply connected trends: the proliferation of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments and activities in schools, at all grade levels, and on college campuses, and the dangerous, growing divide between Diaspora Jewry and Israel.

I shared with the Adelsons the undeniable success of my foundation’s Youth to Israel Adventure (Y2I), which includes a fully subsidized two-week community teen Israel experience and Israel advocacy training during and after the trip. The effectiveness of the teen Israel experience has been demonstrated by several studies. The Lappin Foundation’s 2014 commissioned study of Youth to Israel alumni, ages 18 to 39, conducted by Professor Steven M. Cohen and Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz, found that 72 percent of the Y2I alumni have married fellow Jews and of those who are parents, 90 percent of them are raising their children Jewish. Y2I includes a fully subsidized Israel experience for 16- and 17-year-old Jewish teens.

Pertinence of the study is that Birthright Israel’s effectiveness will not be diluted by lowering the age of eligibility from the current 18 to 26 to 16. Combining the success of Birthright Israel with the undeniable power of the teen Israel experience will yield positive results for Diaspora Jewry and for Israel, in a very short time. Every year, tens of thousands of Jewish teens, most of them college-bound, will have an Israel experience and Israel advocacy training before they go to college. This revolutionary approach is a silver bullet for Jewish teen engagement and will yield Jewish students who are passionate and equipped to serve as boots-on-the-ground in their high schools and communities and on college campuses across the country, fighting anti-Semitism and BDS.

A teen Israel experience before college provides the foundation, and ample time, up to two years, for teens to learn how to advocate for Israel, something that Birthright Israel is not able to do, given that Birthright Israel trips take place after a young adult’s college experience has started.

As has been Y2I’s practice for years, local communities can develop programs that will train and equip Jewish teens with skills and techniques necessary to contend with anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activities and sentiments before, during, and after their college years; but, only if teens have been fortified with an Israel experience.

Key to attracting Jewish teens en masse to an Israel experience is the adoption of the justly admired Birthright Israel model: a fully-subsidized trip. Birthright Israel is the only viable entity to meet this new challenge. If Birthright Israel agrees to lower its age of eligibility to 16, the Jewish world will be well on its way to meeting this growing, urgent need.

Mr. Adelson’s decision, which I await, has the capacity to ensure Jewish continuity in the United States.

Robert Lappin is the president of the Lappin Foundation in Salem.

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