Amid talk of an unclear future for Taglit-Birthright programs around the country, officials from the University’s Hillel are offering new perks to their patrons, an indication, they argue, of the strength of UM-Hillel’s program.

Last year, Hillel officials said they had to turn away record numbers of Jewish students from the Taglit-Birthright Israel program because of heightened numbers and fewer spots compared to preceding years not, as many had suspected, the national economic meltdown or fallout from Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme — which affected a disproportionate number of wealthy Jewish people and charities.

The decreased numbers admitted to the program last summer followed a spur in enrollment around Israel’s 60th birthday two summers ago, when Taglit-Birthright opened special spots for the occasion, organizations said at the time.

This year, UM-Hillel’s Program Director Alison Sheren said the continued fallout from the economic recession has still not soured the organization’s Birthright plans.

“We are still offering great itineraries, offering the opportunity for students to travel all over Israel,” she said.

Sheren said the organization’s Birthright offerings have increased since last year, not because of increased funding, but because of a special partnership with a travel company.

“It’s not a question of funding at all, it is just when working with a different partner, they are able to offer us different resources.” Sheren said. “They were able to provide us more spots than we have had in the past for our winter trips.”

In the past, the milestone journey, free to those of Jewish descent, was grouped with other schools across the country to cut costs.

But this year, Hillel will be teaming with IsraelExperts to fund and strengthen the program — even providing a tour bus that is exclusively available to Wolverines.

Sheren says the new partner is the major reason for the private bus.

“IsraelExperts is an excellent trip provider,” she said. “They are able to offer a really great itinerary that’s filled with both fun and learning which is what we try to balance.”

With IsraelExperts as a new partner, a private bus with 40 seats during the winter is now available for Michigan students, Sheren said.

“We think there will be more applicants due to the amount of waitlisted students from this past summer,” she said.

Lauren Schuchart, engagement associate at the Penn State Hillel, said the size of a school could make a big difference in the amount its respective Birthright trips receive.

“It’s very lucky,” she said, referring to the University of Michigan’s Hillel. “For many schools, they get less than a full bus and go on the trip with other campuses. We have had to waitlist more people than we have had to in the past.”

In State College, P.A., Schuchart said she has noticed that the number of available spots is falling short of the high number of applicants.

“For our trips, we have received less seats in the past than the amount of applicants we have,” Schuchart said. “It’s in the numbers. It is unfortunate, but at the same time, we are still sending students to Israel.”

A similar story to the one here is playing out in East Lansing, where Michigan State University Hillel Director Cindy Hughey says its Israel trip has not been affected much by the economic crisis either.

Hughey said their program is expecting the same number of students and the same amount of funding as in previous years.

“I am not anticipating any change and there have been no cuts in funding,” says Hughey. “We are doing quite well with the number of applicants that we are getting.”

The National Birthright Organization is reporting that it too has not suffered economically during this past year. In fact, it has seen even more funding than before, Deborah Camiel of the National Birthright Organization said.

“We weren’t really touched by Madoff, because we weren’t invested,” Camiel said.

“If anything, we are in the middle of a new campaign, which is a national campaign. We are trying to spread out in a financial way and have a bigger base,” she continued. “We have exceeded the total number of gifts that we had last year. I think we might be one of the few Jewish organizations to increase our number of donors.”

According to Sheren, IsraelExperts is also working with the University of Florida, Sun Coast Campuses and Wesleyan University.

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