By Nicole Neroulias
Religion News Service
(RNS) Jewish organizations are aiming to send more North American teens and young adults than ever to Israel this year, focusing on increasing current numbers and reaching out to new groups.
Taglit-Birthright Israel, which takes 18- to 26-year-olds on its 10-day heritage tours, has been awarded a $100 million matching grant from the Israeli government for the next three years. The commitment will allow the organization to grow from 30,000 applications to 50,000 in 2011. Since 2000, the program has provided free trips to Israel for
more than 260,000 young Jews from 52 countries.
Wish at the Wall, a 10-day tour that has taken 150 teenaged cancer survivors to Israel since 2000, is offering its first trip for disabled and chronically ill Jewish youths this month.
The participants are clients of CHAI Lifeline, an international children's health support organization that also takes young cancer patients to Disney World, and is funded by grants and private donations.
Thirteen 15- to 19-year-olds, with diagnoses including spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and cystic fibrosis, will leave from New York City on Wednesday (Jan. 26), each accompanied by a parent. Eleven of the adolescents use wheelchairs, but organizers say medical staff, ramps and other modifications will allow the group to experience all the usual tourist activities -- including swimming in the Dead Sea and climbing Masada, the remains of King Herod's hilltop fortress.
"We want to provide a group tour experience for teens whose medical conditions lock them out of peer travel," explained Melanie Kwestel, a spokeswoman for CHAI Lifeline.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who announced his government's gift to Birthright Israel earlier this month, said he supports such free trips because "a strong Jewish international identity is vital for our national rebirth."
In his Jan. 6 address to Birthright participants, he said, "What I want to do is to have young Jews from everywhere, who want to come to Israel, come to Israel because I think this can dramatically help us strengthen Jewish identity, and strengthening Jewish identity is critical for our common future."