LSA freshman Lauren Kapnick has never been to Israel, but thanks to the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, she thought that this would be the year she would finally get the opportunity to visit the country — and for free, nonetheless.
But when Kapnick received her admission decision from the organization, she got a surprising answer: She was rejected from the trip.
Record-breaking numbers of Jewish students applying to the Taglit-Birthright Israel program this year, hoping to go on a free trip to explore their heritage, have received similar responses from the program. But according to Birthright officials, the severe decline in availability is the result of high admissions numbers the past two years — a time when Israel was celebrating its 60th birthday — not international financial troubles or fallout from Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, which affected a disproportionate number of wealthy Jewish people and Jewish charities.
Allison Sheren, program director for the University’s Taglit-Birthright Israel program, said the number of available spots on the trip has decreased drastically this year, while registration has seen an unprecedented spike.
Only 75 University of Michigan students are taking a Birthright trip through Hillel this summer, down from 165 students last summer. Sheren said this drop is a result of limited availability.
“Unfortunately, a majority of students who registered for Taglit-Birthright this summer will be unable to actually go on a trip,” Sheren wrote in an e-mail interview. “Many of them will be waitlisted because of the number of spots available.”
The program, which is funded by private donations and the Israeli government, aims to strengthen Jewish identity and bridge the gap between Israel and the rest of the Jewish world by providing young Jewish adults with a free 10-day trip to Israel, according to the Taglit-Birthright Israel website.
During the past two summers, the program brought a combined total of about 50,000 people from colleges across the country and around the world to Israel for the trip, or about 25,000 per summer. This summer, the number has been reduced to 8,000, Sheren said.
A spokesperson for Taglit-Birthright Israel, who wished to remain anonymous because she is not permitted to speak to the press on the subject, said she attributed the current decline in trip availability to a considerable spike in both funding and participation during 2007 and 2008, the years corresponding to Israel’s 60th anniversary.
She added Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, which affected many Jewish charities and organizations that invested with his company, had no effect on the program’s finances or the availability for participation.
Kapnick said she will reapply next year, but worries the organization will run into the same problem again next year due to the worsening economy. She said her worries are driven by the fact that she and six friends applied to go on the trip together, but that not one of her friends was accepted.
While the availability of spots on the trip is in decline, there is an overflow of eligible candidates to fill them.
According to a Birthright Israel Foundation press release earlier this month, demand for the trip has doubled from previous years, with more than 35,000 people vying for the 8,000 spots.
Registration for the trip was open for just nine days, the shortest registration period in the program’s history, according to the release.
Gidi Mark, a spokesperson for Taglit-Birthright Israel, wrote in a press release that the organization was funding as many trips as possible, but he expressed regret that it could not fund more.
“What a bittersweet achievement,” Mark wrote. “We are taking as many participants this year as could ever be expected in this economy, but we’re also at risk of leaving behind more than ever before. It’s an extraordinary challenge.”
LSA freshman Sabrina Tharani also applied for Taglit-Birthright Israel trip through Mayanot’s Michigan program, but was placed on the waitlist. She said she worries that she now won’t be able to go Israel, something she said she always wanted to do.
“I know it’s a wonderful experience and you come back a changed person,” she said. “With the suffering economy, I don’t think I’ll get another chance to go.”
Therani said she wants to apply again next year, but worries she won’t have the same amount of free time.
“It’s harder, going into junior year you need to start working,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll have the availability next year, but I’m definitely going to apply.”
To meet the increased demand for the trip and to compensate for the decline in available spots, the Birthright Israel Foundation has expanded its fundraising efforts through a new campaign.
The core of the new campaign rests with the Adelson Family Foundation, a Jewish philanthropic foundation, which has pledged to match and double the funds raised in 2009, up to a maximum of $20 million.
Sheren said she thinks the program will continue to offer at least 8,000 students the chance to travel to Israel in future years, despite the state of the economy.
“Although the 8,000 spots is a reduction from the past, it is the approximate number Taglit-Birthright Israel would like to maintain, regardless of the economy,” she wrote in the e-mail interview.
Michael Kaplan, an LSA junior who participated in Birthright in May 2007, said the fact that the trip was free drew him in.
“I found most of the students on my trip were pretty unreligious, as am I, and ordinarily taking an expensive trip to Israel would not be something I would strongly consider, especially with the economy the way it is,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Being that it is paid for, it suddenly becomes completely worth it.”