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Go East, Young Non-Jews!

Birthright Israel inspires other countries to launch diaspora trips

Rebecca Heilweil
July 20, 2016
Photo Sean MacEntee
Bundoran, in County Donegal, will be one of the stops on the tour of Ireland.Photo Sean MacEntee
Photo Sean MacEntee
Bundoran, in County Donegal, will be one of the stops on the tour of Ireland.Photo Sean MacEntee

On July 20, Samantha Martin will travel with 19 other young people across an ocean to spend two weeks in the land of her ancestors. She will learn about their language, culture, and religion, and she will travel to historic sites and cities. If all goes well, she will return to the United States newly eager to join an active diaspora community.

A Birthright trip to Israel? Sounds like it, but no. Samantha is heading to Ireland, which is only the latest of many countries whose diaspora hopes to imitate the success of Birthright, part of Israel’s unparalleled diaspora-engagement engine.

In this time of globalization, as diaspora leaders from many countries look to their younger members as political and economic resources, the diaspora communities of Armenia, Greece, Macedonia, Hungary, and Cuba all have founded Birthright-style programs. Each program is structured and funded differently, but all aspire to the success of the Israel-bound program.

Kingsley Aikins, head of the Ireland-based group Diaspora Matters, a consulting company that specializes in diaspora issues, describes diaspora communities as the interconnected world’s new soft power. Engaging these populations requires an active flow of money, people, and knowledge across borders, and often, oceans. While young adult diaspora groups are already capitalizing on technology, Aikins cautions that diaspora groups must ensure that their enthusiasm and involvement is maintained across the generations.

He notes that capitalizing on diaspora engagement is by no means a new idea. While the word “diaspora” has only recently “gone mainstream,” Israel has been pioneering diaspora engagement for over 1,000 years, stretching back to the exile of the Babylonian Jews in the fifth century, according to Aikins. He argues modern Israel’s intense diaspora engagement was key to transitioning the country from its agricultural roots to the “the great start-up nation is today,” making other countries keen to mimic its approach. He adds that countries have nothing to lose from sharing trade secrets, as it’s “essentially a noncompetitive industry.”

Organized by Ireland’s department of foreign affairs and the Irish Institute of Study Abroad, the new Global Irish Summer Camp will bring young Irish-Americans like Samantha Martin back to Ireland. Niamh Hamill, the camp’s lead instructor, hopes the students will explore their heritage so “future generations abroad maintain the links that have been so carefully nurtured by past generations.”

Martin never expected she would spend a summer in Ireland. “I knew I had Irish heritage,” she said, but had never traveled to the small European nation. After family members signed up for an online ancestry service, she discovered that her great-great-great grandfather had been born in Ireland in 1861.

The program is only in its first year, and just 20 teenagers have been accepted. While the camp will cover living expenses, students must pay for their own airfare. By comparison, Taglit-Birthright Israel sent 45,000 young people to Israel in 2015 alone. Since 1999, more than 500,000 Jews from over 66 countries have gone on Birthright trips, completely funded by megadonors like Charles Bronfman, Sheldon Adelson, and Michael Steinhardt, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the Israeli government. It costs $3,000 to send one student on the program and $120,000 to fill a typical tour bus. The Birthright Israel Foundation estimates its programming has contributed over $1 billion to Israel’s economy since its founding.

Ireland has a particular interest in investing in its American diaspora. There are seven times more Americans of Irish descent than the entire population of Ireland, according to Irish Central; it is the third-largest ethnic group in the United States. But this potentially huge economic and political force is at risk of losing any passion for its home country after decades of assimilation.

Over the past few years, prominent leaders of the Irish diaspora community have advocated that the country produce a program modeled after Israel’s trip. For the Irish, the Birthright model is a winning one, combining an emphasis on themes of birthright and homecoming with education-based travel.

The relationship between Ireland and Israel’s diaspora leaders stretches back to 2009. Supported by the Irish government, the Ireland Funds, a global fundraising network for the Irish diaspora, coordinated a research trip to Israel (as well as India) to study diaspora engagement. In addition to consulting Taglit-Birthright’s CEO, Gidi Mark, the group also met Israel’s then-ambassador to Ireland, Zion Evrony; Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs, Yuli Edelstein; and other leaders. The trip concluded with a report, co-authored by Aikins, that recognized Taglit-Birthright as one of the world’s most successful diaspora programs.

In 2012, Edelstein introduced the Global Village Conference in Israel, which was attended by Diaspora Matters’ Aikins and included commentary from representatives from the Jewish Agency for Israel (which helps fund Taglit-Birthright) and Masa Israel, which assists students living in Israel for longer stretches of time. That same year, Edelstein took his first trip to Ireland, briefing journalists and academics on Israel’s diaspora engagement, as well as other issues.

In 2013, Mark was invited to speak at the third Global Irish Economic Forum. The next year, in a diaspora policy report, an Irish senator, Mark Daly, suggested Ireland create its own Birthright-style program.

In 2014, the Irish government appointed the country’s first minister of the diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan, to address both the country’s Irish-born citizens living abroad and its emigrant communities and their descendants—potential economic resources. And in November 2015, citing the success of Taglit-Birthright, Deenihan announced plans for the Global Irish Summer Camp.


Of course, the Irish and Jewish diasporas have important differences. While Irish-Americans identify, at least partially, as ethnically Irish, most Jews are not Israeli and many do not have Middle Eastern heritage. Yet Zeev Boker, the current Israeli ambassador to Ireland, says the diasporas share more similarities than differences and provide an opportunity for bilateral coordination between the two countries. Boker points the two diasporas as similar in size—“both are in the several million”—and both often “live in the United States, especially in major cities like New York and Boston.”

Taglit-Birthright has proudly acknowledged its influence on diaspora trips to other countries. Mark has repeatedly commented that other countries, like Ireland and Hungary, have imitated the Birthright model, which he has called “a world leader” in homeland tourism. Doron Karni, another Taglit-Birthright official, contributed to a 2011 Diaspora Toolkit published by Diaspora Matters. The report cites Israel’s program as “global best practice in engaging the next generation.”

Art Dimopoulos, who runs the National Hellenic Society’s Heritage Greece trip, said the American Greek community is, like the Jewish community, trying to engage identity and heritage among its younger members. The Heritage Greece trip, which lasts just over two weeks, was founded out of a concern that Greek-Americans were quickly losing their culture in the face of high rates of intercultural and interreligious marriages (almost all Greeks are Greek Orthodox by ancestry).

Dimopoulos said that when his program launched in 2010, he asked Taglit-Birthright officials for advice. He added that a young Jewish-Greek student who attended both the Heritage Greece and Taglit-Birthright Israel trips in the same summer provided further insight.

Heritage Greece isn’t alone. ReConnect Hungary brings Hungarian Americans and Canadians between the ages of 18 and 26 to Hungary for two weeks. Birthright Macedonia, which brings students to the country for a three-week internship, launched in 2015. Most recently, four second-generation Cuban-Americans launched the CubaOne Foundation, which will bring young Cuban-Americans between 22 and 35 back to the country. It, too, is modeled on Birthright.

Founded in 2003, Birthright Armenia is one of the most successful diaspora programs launched after Taglit-Birthright. “There came a time after Armenia’s independence, that those of us in the diaspora had finally gotten our free, independent Armenia, and we were in a ‘now what?’ situation,” said Linda Yepoyan, the program’s executive director. She said that while it costs about $3,000 to fund the average volunteer, a large portion of the money remains in Armenia, contributing to the country’s economy.

The long-term volunteer program—which includes regular language classes, homestays, and field trips across the country and assigns students work positions that can range from the nonprofit sector to engineering—today attracts anywhere between 30 and 100 volunteers every month.

When Birthright Armenia was in its infancy, Yepoyan and her program’s founder, Edele Hovnanian, met with the then-COO of Taglit-Birthright, Barbara Aronson, “for hours,” which she describes as “one of the kindest gestures we experienced.” Aronson shared Taglit-Birthright’s extensive portfolio of programming and branding strategies, which included, Yepoyan said, “websites, social media, surveys, tour book, alumni-relations planning” and “surveys from Brandeis, sociologists, psychologist, [and] Ph.D.s in Israel.”

Since its inception, Birthright Armenia has sponsored more than 1,200 volunteers from over 38 countries, and 72 of the program’s alumni have permanently moved to Armenia. Yepoyan says within the world of youth homeland trips, Taglit-Birthright “set the bar, even though their missions are quite different.”

From Israel’s model, Yepoyan learned that “if you’re going to do it, do it big, and do it right.”


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Rebecca Heilweil is a student-researcher and journalist at the University of Pennsylvania