Irish Diaspora Minister Jimmy Deenihan will announce a pilot scheme that will allow Irish American students aged between 18 and 26 to spend a period of ten days to two weeks in Ireland at no cost on an immersive program of learning Irish culture, history and current affairs.
How the students are chosen and what selection process will be used is still being decided. In Israel more than 400,000 Jewish students have spent ten days in Israel since their Birthright program was founded in 1999.
Deenihan is addressing the Global Irish Economic Forum this weekend and will announce that the program, based on 'Birthright Israel,' will begin its pilot phase in Summer 2016. The idea was first put forward by Irish American leaders.
If the pilot scheme works tens of thousands of young Irish American men and women between 18 and 26 may have the opportunity to spend up to ten free days in Ireland learning about Irish culture and history – if a proposed government initiative gets off the ground.
Jimmy Deenihan has previously outlined proposals for “an orientation course on what it is to be Irish” for young people with a connection to Ireland, “similar to the Israel Taglit-Birthright scheme which has seen more than 400,000 young Jewish people visit Israel over the past 15 years.”
The idea was first framed by Irish American leaders.
The Israeli program, founded in 1999, sends young men and women of Jewish origins to Israel for a ten day immersion in the language, culture, history and modern day life of Israel. To date, more than 400,000 young adults from all over the world have taken part in Birthright Israel, which began as the initiative of two philanthropists, Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, who shared the belief that it was “the birthright of all young Jews to be able to visit their ancestral homeland.”
Participants have come from 66 countries, all 50 U.S. States and Canadian provinces, and from nearly 1,000 North American colleges and universities. To be eligible, applicants must be between the ages of 18 and 26, have graduated from high school, have at least one Jewish parent, and identify as Jewish. Those who have been on prior educational trips to Israel or who have spent more than three months there since the age of 12 are not eligible, and Israeli citizens or those who were born there may only apply if they left Israel before the age of 12.
An Irish outreach program would likely involve a similar blend of private philanthropy and government funding and would provide a powerful new linkage between the Irish Diaspora and Ireland at a time when there is much discussion about the future.
IrishCentral spoke with Birthright participants to get a sense of how Ireland could model its initiative on the program and what it could do differently.
Most lauded the degree of planning involved and the effort made to allow participants to see as much of the country as possible.
A few past participants who identified as Jewish more culturally than religiously said they found the religious emphasis of Birthright a challenge.
But the general consensus seems to be that the program offers a small taste of everything Israel has to offer. It also provides a unique chance for young American Jews to bond with each other and with their Israeli counterparts.
Michelle Ronay, a lawyer in Chicago, went on Birthright five years ago when she was 21 and found the experience to be so positive that she still volunteers with an affiliated organization.
"I loved Birthright overall," she said. "For me, the best parts of the trip were being able to talk and bond with the young Israelis who accompanied us. We were able to ask them probing questions about Israel's politics, religion, culture, etc and likewise, they were fascinated by our American culture. Naturally we didn't agree on every topic, but I think Birthright is very smart to have Israelis accompany Americans on the trips. It does a great job driving home the sense of the diaspora yet also reminding us of the similarities we share.
"Not only are you ultimately bonding with Israelis who are your age, you are also bonding with other American Jews. For many people on the program, it was the first time they ever got to be with other Jews and not feel like a minority."