Bad Trip: How Coronavirus Upended Birthright but Proved a Boon for Israel Gap-year Programs

June 2, 2020

Source: Haaretz 


Over the past two decades, Birthright trips have been a virtual rite of passage for young Diaspora Jews. These free, 10-day tours of Israel continued even during periods of war and terror attacks. Sometimes, out of concern for the safety of participants, parts of the country would be deemed off-limits. And sometimes, the famous Birthright buses were more empty than full. But never in its 20-year history has Birthright been forced to suspend its trips. Until the coronavirus outbreak.

In mid-March, Birthright – often hailed as the most successful Jewish World project ever – announced that it was halting all trips to Israel, with plans to resume them in June. But as June approached, and with the pandemic still not under control, the organization notified would-be candidates that all trips through the end of July would be postponed, with plans to resume in August. Registration for these late summer trips was scheduled to open on Tuesday. However, on the Birthright website, the earliest scheduled trips only begin in September.

When asked how trips could resume if Israel continues to impose a 14-day quarantine period on all individuals entering the country, a spokesperson for the organization said: “It’s too early for us to say how trips will look from now, but we will let you know once we do.”

But not all Israel experience programs are in the same situation. In fact, some even anticipate a coronavirus-related bonanza. The key difference between these programs and Birthright is their duration: They are long enough to accommodate the 14-day quarantine period for participants that is currently required of every individual landing in Israel.

Last week, the Interior Ministry announced that any participants in programs that require student visas who had left Israel during the pandemic and now wanted to return would be able to do so, provided their visas were still valid and they had a place to self-quarantine for 14 days. This would include international students enrolled at Israeli universities, yeshivas and seminaries, as well as any programs overseen and subsidized by Masa.

Participants in Masa programs receive a special “Masa visa” that allows them to work after they have completed their programs. To be eligible for such a visa, an applicant must be able to prove that he or she qualifies for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

Masa has announced that it is working with the Interior Ministry to obtain visas for participants in programs scheduled to begin in September. Typically, participants would apply for these visas themselves at Israeli consulates abroad. But because many consulates are not currently open or are understaffed, Masa has reached an agreement that will allow each program to apply for the visas on behalf of its participants directly through the Interior Ministry offices in Israel. Each program is responsible, in turn, for organizing places for participants to quarantine themselves upon arrival.

Masa CEO Ofer Gutman notes with pride that many of the programs supervised by his organization continued to operate during the pandemic, even as they moved indoors in compliance with social distancing requirements. Of the 7,500 participants in Masa programs who were in Israel at the start of the outbreak, he reports, more than 4,000 chose to remain in the country.

Gutman says that registration for programs scheduled to open next year has been booming – more than double the numbers from this time last year – as young Diaspora Jews, mainly in the United States, consider alternatives to universities back home given the likelihood that classrooms will remain closed next semester. With unemployment skyrocketing abroad, Gutman adds, many will also be seeking professional development opportunities that can provide them with an advantage in a challenging job market.

“In many ways it’s similar to what happened in 2008 and 2009, when there were lots of layoffs in America and many young people out of college who couldn’t find jobs,” Gutman recalls. “I think many post-college Jews from America will use this opportunity to take on internships in Israel that could add a nice line to their CVs.”

Read more at Haaretz.

Updated: Jun. 10, 2020