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NEW YORK – For some young Jews, it's almost become a rite of passage: taking a free trip through Birthright Israel.
Since the organization launched 16 years ago, it's brought 500,000 Jews to Israel. They come from 66 countries, but about three-fourths are American. The only requirement is that participants be 18 to 26 years old, with at least one Jewish parent (or one Jewish grandparent if they're from the former Soviet Union).
Birthright Israel was founded by philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt. Today funding comes from the Israeli government, Jewish nonprofits and individual donors, including the conservative billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam.
Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark calls the free trips "a gift from one generation to another." The Associated Press interviewed Mark in New York about the organization's goals and how it has evolved.
AP: What's your mission?
MARK: The real gift we give young people is the ability to think. This is a crucial time in their lives, leaving parents' homes, asking, 'Who am I? Who am I going to be?' We give them 10 days to forge their own identities.
Brandeis University has done research that shows Birthright increases feelings of attachment to the state of Israel by 40 percent. It increases the number of Jews marrying Jews by 45 percent. It increases the willingness to raise their children Jewish if they have a non-Jewish parent. ... Forty-five percent of our participants from the U.S. come back to Israel within five years.
AP: How do you handle controversy over Israeli politics?
MARK: We used to hear complaints that a speaker was too right-wing and about 50 percent complain the other speaker was too left-wing. We decided to go and take the best speakers in Israel and give them guidelines of messages that anybody could feel very well with. We started this last year and for the first time we did not receive one complaint.
We have thousands of people who are very critical of Israeli policy. But after 10 days in Israel they take ownership of what's going on in Israel, including the criticism. We don't say Israel is impeccable.
We add eight Israelis to each group of about 40 participants. Among eight Israelis there are nine opinions. If we want to control content, we cannot.
We don't allow preaching, not religiously, not politically.
AP: Do Birthright participants meet with Palestinians?
MARK: A large part of participants do meet with Arabs living in Israel from all walks of life.
AP: How do you keep Birthright Israel trips safe?
MARK: Luckily we have a very clean record after half a million participants. Parents were concerned about going into the Middle East, it's a volatile area. But Israel has become relatively safe in the eyes of Americans, partly because of what's going on here (in the U.S.) and what's going on in Europe.
We have one security guard joining each and every one of the groups. We constantly change itineraries if we need to. We don't go to regions that might have any potential of violence. Each and every one of the groups has an emergency button that goes directly to the national emergency room and every group is monitored 24/7.
AP: How much of the Birthright Israel experience is religious?
MARK: Only 2 percent of our participants consider themselves Orthodox. I believe close to 40 percent define themselves as Reform, about the same number define themselves as "just Jewish," and don't belong to any movement.
We do the blessings for Shabbat ... but we take religion as part of a very broad tradition in a positive way. No coercion.
We also from time to time make huge bar mitzvah ceremonies and Hebrew naming ceremonies, which are very moving.
We try to show them that Judaism is not about religion only. Religion is part of many faces of Judaism. There is culture, art, history, social relationships.
AP: How has Birthright Israel changed?
MARK: You cannot compare Birthright Israel today to Birthright Israel five years ago.
First of all we diversified the offerings. We have 40 different types of groups. Groups for foodies, for theater, for journalists, for bloggers, for doctors. Groups for people who have Asperger's or Crohn's disease or are disabled or LGBT or film writers.
We would also like to extend the time they spend in Tel Aviv and improve it. We've opened the first-ever visitors center in Tel Aviv to showcase Israeli's high-tech industry. We've started to bring Birthright Israel groups there to meet with entrepreneurs.
AP: Spending a night in the desert seems to be something a lot of participants find memorable.
MARK: For thousands of them, just to lie on the ground and look at the sky like Moses and Abraham, it's a new experience. They are really excited about it. We give them binoculars and telescopes to see falling stars, to see something they would never forget.
AP: Birthright is famous for its hookup culture.
MARK: We are not the police. We are lucky to have decided from day one we don't deal with minors. Anything they do, they do with mutual respect.
AP: Are there many Birthright marriages?
MARK: I personally know of hundreds of marriages that came from Birthright trips and I can tell you there are hundreds of children. In two years we are going to have the first child of Birthright parents come on a trip.