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Birthright trips to Israel temporarily halted over COVID-19 crisis

Israel experience program has gone virtual, but hopes to launch some trips by end of summer, with participants from countries that are relatively coronavirus-free

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Birthright Excel participants at the opening of their 2019 program, which is taking place virtually in 2020 due to the coronavirus (Courtesy Birthright)
Birthright Excel participants at the opening of their 2019 program, which is taking place virtually in 2020 due to the coronavirus (Courtesy Birthright)

Taglit-Birthright Israel may not run any of its free trips to Israel for young adults during the 2020 summer season, due to the coronavirus crisis.

The organization’s May, June and July trips have been canceled, a first in Birthright’s 21-year history. There is a possibility of bringing some groups to Israel before September, an organization spokeswoman said, for young Jews from the so-called green zone countries, places where the coronavirus is under control.

“We’re working on bringing [those from] the green countries,” she said. “We’re optimistic and hoping for that.”

This halt in spring and summer trips is a first for Taglit-Birthright Israel, which since its founding in 1999 has brought hundreds of thousands of 18-32 year-olds to the country on 10-day trips meant to foster an appreciation for the Jewish homeland.

In late May, Israel took part in a meeting between eight low-infection countries on reopening borders and jumpstarting tourism as the virus recedes. The other countries were Austria, Australia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, New Zealand and Singapore.

For now, Birthright is trying to offer some online alternatives.

“It’s all virtual right now,” said the spokesperson. “We’re keeping our connections with young Jews around the world.”

Several dozen students from campuses throughout the US recently joined a virtual Rainbow Tour, a Zoom event created in April by Hillel International with Rainbow Tour TLV, a walking tour company that tells the story of Tel Aviv’s gay community through the sites and spots relevant to the city’s LGBTQ life.

The Birthright version of the tour was led by Slav Adam Leibin, the Rainbow Tour TLV founder, who offered a virtual walk through the streets and neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, telling the history and anecdotes of the city’s gay community for students in the US.

Slav Adam Leibin, upper right corner, leading a zoom tour of Tel Aviv’s gay history for would-be Birthright participants in April 2020 (Courtesy Birthright)

Hillel’s Israel Action Program is trying to offer Israeli culture in other ways, including a Zoom book event with journalist Yossi Klein Halevi on his book “Letter to My Palestinian Neighbor,” and a Hillel at Home conversation with Israeli actress Rona Lee Shimon, who plays an undercover anti-terror operative in the Netflix series “Fauda.”

Another Birthright program, Birthright Excel, launched its tenth business internship cohort via Zoom. The program is a 10-week summer internship in Israel, placing fellows in global biotech, consulting, cyber/tech, finance, marketing and venture capital firms and pairing them with an Israeli counterpart, fellow students or officers from IDF technological units.

This summer, however, the program’s professional mentors, Israeli companies, participants and guest speakers all agreed to shift the 10-week experience to a virtual program, with the educational and internship components of the program taking place online.

According to Birthright, there are 51 students from 33 universities in the US, Canada, Mexico and the UK participating in Birthright Excel, with internships at 28 Israeli companies.

“COVID-19 has brought Birthright to an unprecedented situation that forced us to stop the arrival of groups for the time being,” said Birthright CEO Gidi Mark in a statement. “As soon as it will be both safe and possible, I would love to welcome you all in Israel.”

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