Birthright Israel announced a month-long extension for applications to this winter’s free Israel trip, open to any Jewish student who has never visited the country in an organized program. Program officials cited recent terrorist attacks and violence in the Middle East for the decline in applications, which were originally due Oct. 5.
“Sept. 11 set everyone’s schedule back a few weeks,” GW Hillel Director Simon Amiel said. The deadline is now Nov. 5. It is the second extension for the trip this year.
At this time last year, Amiel said, Hillel had almost 250 applications for 60 spaces on the trip. This year, he said, about 30 students applied for 80 spots. Amiel said Hillel, an international Jewish organization that works with college campuses, granted GW the 80 spaces it requested because of the number of applications last year.
Birthright Israel spokesman Joe Wagner said since the program extended registration the number of applications has come closer to the target of 10,000 participants from around the world.
“Our numbers are approaching 9,000,” Wagner said, adding that students from more than 20 countries join the trip each year.
He said about 14,000 students went on the trip last year – 9,000 in the winter and 5,000 in the spring – mostly from United States and Canada. The groups, coordinated by about 30 organizations such as Hillel, travel between late December and early February.
The 10-day trip allows Jewish students to see historical sites, talk with Israeli religious and government figures and explore the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
A $210 million partnership from philanthropists and international Jewish organizations funds the Birthright Israel program, which was founded on the Jewish belief that students have a right to visit Israel.
Junior Jamie Kramer said she was accepted to go on the trip last year but decided not to go because her parents and grandparents, who live in Israel, worried about her safety. Kramer said she did not apply for the program this year.
“It hasn’t gotten any safer,” she said, because violence affects “public places where young people are going.”
Kramer said she still hopes to visit Israel in the future.
Amiel and Wagner, who will both travel to Israel this winter with the program, said Birthright Israel works with U.S. and Israeli governments to ensure safety of students on the trip.
“It’s not just us deciding where we should be going,” Amiel said. “We wouldn’t be going anywhere the Israeli government wouldn’t send a fifth grade class field trip.”
Wagner said the groups review their itinerary daily with the Israeli Ministry of Education to make sure the next day’s trip is going to a safe area.
“I was there in 1998 for a year,” Wagner said. “There’s 5 million people who live in Israel everyday, most of whom are not subjected to any violence.”
Wagner said he understands security concerns.
“Lots of people do have worries before they get on the plane, but they quickly disappear,” he said. “We have a proven track record of bringing people safely on the trip.”