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.
The Irish Times reports that Minister for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan has 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 Deenihan proposal is part of a broader package that also addresses issues such a emigrant voting rights.
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 over 400,000 young adults from all over the world have taken part in Birthright, 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.
“The trip was well planned and covered (as in miles) so much of the country. We saw the nature, the culture and the religion all in a week and a half,” said Hana Itkis, a playwright who went on Birthright seven years ago.
“I met some amazing people and after spending ten hours on the bus with them for the first couple of days, it already felt as though we were longtime friends. The night we slept in the desert was by far the most memorable evening for me. We camped outside in Bedouin tents, cooked dinner and ran around like wild children. We played music and fell asleep under the stars,” she recalled.
In addition to displaying the idyllic and historic aspects of Israel, including Herod's Temple, the Wailing Wall, and the desert fortress Masada, they said that the trip also exposed them to some of the harsher realities.
Lauren Taylor, a 26-year-old film/TV freelancer in Brooklyn, went on Birthright in January 2014 with friends she’d known since the age of 13.
“We went to the West Bank border and saw the extremely intimidating security checkpoints regular people have to go through to and from work everyday, or not – sometimes the gates aren't open and they just can't get through to the other side,” she said. “It was hard to see and it's still hard to understand. Being exposed to these things forced me to examine and question the past and to keep hope for the future.”
A few past participants who identified as Jewish more culturally than religiously said they found the religious emphasis of Birthright a challenge.
“The trip would have been incredible if it wasn't so focused on religious conversion. The guide should have taken a step back from pushing her views onto us,” Itkis shared. “I think just by exploring and talking to some of the locals I gained a better sense of what the country was going through, rather than sitting in a circle and discussing whether or not I would shoot down a child running at me with a bomb.
But the general consensus seems to be that the program offers a small taste of everything Israel has to offer. “It felt like we were constantly getting on the bus and off of it and I could have spent days at the Dead Sea, not just a mere 3 hours. I wanted to sink my teeth into it,” Taylor said.
But then again, that may be just the point. “I guess they want that, so you go back,” she added.
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 and 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."
Would you go on an Irish immersion program if eligible? Do you think it’s a good way for Ireland to strengthen ties with the diaspora? Let us know what you think in the comment section.