Birthright is resuming its free trips to Israel for the first time since Oct. 7
Members of the Texas Hillel Birthright Israel Summer trip from 2022. (Photo :Courtesy Texas Hillel)

By Deborah Danan
December 18, 2023

(JTA) — Birthright Israel on Monday announced that it would resume its free, 10-day educational trips to Israel in January after suspending them amid the ongoing war with Hamas.

Around 350 participants, students and young adults primarily from the United States, are expected to travel to Israel beginning the week of Jan. 5, 2024, the organization said in a statement.

The 350 participants are a small fraction of the 23,000 Birthright had planned to send to Israel this year. Still, the resumption of the programs is a powerful symbol of a potential return to normalcy for Israel, which has been in war mode since Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7. Even as Israeli leaders say they are unwilling to put an end date on their military operations in Gaza, universities are gearing up to reopen Dec. 31 and on Monday, the government raised limits on gathering sizes, citing reduced concerns about rocket attacks.

The decision to resume Birthright trips was made after “careful consideration and conversations” with the group’s local partners in Israel, the group’s statement said, and will “operate under strict safety and security standards” set by the Israel Defense Forces’ Homefront Command.

Birthright CEO Gidi Mark said that while the trips will continue to prioritize the organization’s goals of “positive Jewish identity building,” they will also incorporate a focus on the Hamas attack and its impact on Israeli society and Jewish communities around the world.

“Everything is different post-Oct. 7 from an educational perspective. The people of Israel are different and the young adults arriving to Israel are different,” Mark told JTA. “We are preparing the educational teams to deal with broad discussions and an open dialogue. We believe that participants will come to explore and learn about what happened and what is occurring now, and also share about the reality back home and the rise of antisemitism.”

Travel to and from Israel has been limited to Israeli carriers since Oct. 7, and the war has taken a steep toll on tourism.

Last month, Birthright announced the launch of volunteer programs in Israel after it canceled its regular scheduled trips for December amid security concerns. More than 3,300 of its alumni had applied to volunteer in kibbutzes and other Israeli communities “to harvest crops in the absence of the thousands of foreign field workers,” the organization said in a statement at the time.

Even with the resumption of its regular programs, the two-week volunteer trips – which are exclusively for Birthright alumni – would continue in tandem, Mark told JTA.

“Naturally, alumni of January classic trips will be able to extend their stay in Israel, for an additional two-week volunteering experience,” he added.

Birthright Israel has brought some 850,000 young Jewish adults to Israel on a free tour of Israel since its launch in 1999. The organization had previously canceled trips only once before, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Facing financial woes, it has scaled in the years since.

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