Despite a drastic budget cut in the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, the Pittsburgh branch is preparing to help local university students apply for the free trips to the Jewish state.
Last week, JTA reported that Birthright slashed its spending plan by $35 million, meaning the number of participants will drop from 42,000 it sent last year to around 25,000 for 2009.
Taglit-Birthright Israel is a worldwide program that sends students to Israel, at virtually no cost. The program exists thanks to the philanthropy of many generous individuals and the Israeli
Yoni Steinberg, community development coordinator for the Hillel Jewish University Center in Oakland, said that most of the funding to Birthright in Pittsburgh is granted with aid from the United Jewish Federation.
“The UJF has a critical role in determining the funding for our trip and without them, we wouldn’t be able to run our trips,” he said. “In Pittsburgh there is a direct relation between the [Jewish] community and the university.”
Brad Chotiner, assistant director at Hillel JUC, said that this year there has been more student demand to go on these trips.
“We are very excited,” he said. “This is the first time in a couple of years that we are sending a winter trip, as well as a spring trip.”
According to Chotiner, this upcoming trip will consist of 20 students coming from several universities in the Pittsburgh area.
“There is much more demand than there is supply,” said Steinberg, “many more applicants than there are seats and especially now with the budget cuts.”
Students who cannot take the winter trip are first in line for the spring trip, Steinberg said.
“If a student had applied and had been approved for a spot that wasn’t there, they are on a priority for the next trip,” he said.
Birthright funding is in direct relationship to how many people apply.
“The decision is not in our [Hillel JUC] control; if Taglit-Birthright International cuts a certain amount of spots, their cuts are distributed across the country.”
Alina Rosenberg, 24, is a Duquesne University graduate student who decided to go on Birthright after she heard it’s a trip to remember.
“I have close family and friends that went and had an amazing time,” she said.
Veronica Aglow, 23, is a Point Park University student who has also been long awaiting this trip.
“It is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve had friends and family that have gone; I have been putting it off for so long, I don’t know if I will have the opportunity again.”
The Taglit-Birthright budget cut came as disappointing news to all of the students.
“I was surprised,” said Rosenberg, “I didn’t realize how many people got to go each year.”
Despite the cutbacks, Aglow said students should keep trying to obtain a spot on a future Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.
“I would encourage them to keep applying until they get accepted, because I know how amazing the trip is going to be,” she said. “I have a lot of friends looking forward to hearing my stories from the trip.
“I would say wait it out — it is a free trip so it’s worth the wait,” she added. “There is a trade-off between taking more people versus the quality of the trip you get.”
(Alon Melamed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)