(JTA) — Birthright Israel has canceled its trips that had been scheduled for December due to safety concerns from the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, reportedly the first time in its history the group has pulled programs due to war in the region.
A Birthright spokesperson told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency the group expects to resume trips soon. The nonprofit’s CEO Gidi Mark told eJewishPhilanthropy that the trips could resume before the end of the year if the situation in Israel becomes “more stable.”
Launched in 1999, the organization’s free trips to Israel for Jewish young adults have become a staple of many Jews’ college or post-college experiences, though participation in the program has waned in recent years. Funding for the organization has also been jeopardized after losing some major donors in recent years. The only previous time the organization has canceled trips was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During previous periods of violence in the region, in 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2019, Birthright continued trips as scheduled but altered them to avoid violent areas, according to eJewishPhilanthropy. That meant, in 2019, that trips briefly avoided visiting the same Gaza border communities that were massacred on Oct. 7 of this year. The Kibbutz Movement, which represents some of those communities, criticized Birthright at the time for its decision, saying the move ran contrary to Zionist values.
Last month the organization had denied rumors of the December trips’ cancellations to JTA, saying that they were still on schedule. Birthright typically schedules many winter tours to Israel for college students starting in mid-December.
In the meantime, Birthright is getting hands-on with the current conflict in other ways. The organization is now running a program to bring alumni back to Israel to volunteer in agriculture and donation centers while the country’s workforce is being redirected to the war. Those joining in are part of a wave of volunteers looking to fill in the gaps in the country’s agriculture and other industries. Unlike its regular Israel trips, participants in this program are required to buy their own flights and travel insurance.
Though the organization normally bills itself as not political, Birthright also launched a social media campaign to encourage alumni to share positive posts about Israel to combat anti-Israel sentiment on social platforms in the wake of Oct. 7. Noa Bauer, a marketing executive for Birthright based in Israel, told JTA last month, “I think this is the time for Birthright to make sure that every alumni stands up for Israel.”