The Next Generation in the news:
On the road to ‘Birthright Greece’

from Odyssey Magazine
July/August 2007

“…this summer will see the launch of an effort that resembles Birthright Israel by the Next Generation Initiative…”

Almost a decade ago, I wrote about an extraordinary evening in Jerusalem during which two Jewish philanthropists, Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, conceived of and committed to a visionary idea: Birthright Israel. The concept was simple: To allow young people from anywhere in the world to travel to Israel on a 10-day educational journey, all expenses paid.

The concerns that animated Bronfman and Steinhardt will be familiar to Hellenes everywhere. They felt that assimilation and intermarriage had weakened the diaspora’s cultural identity, that global Jews and Israelis had grown distant from each other, and that young people were unable (for financial and other reasons) to explore their own roots and identity.

[Seven years later...]

Today, seven years after the first participants in Birthright Israel arrived in Jerusalem, the program has succeeded beyond all expectations. Over 120,000 young adults (the program targets 18-26-year-olds) from 51 countries have traveled to Israel courtesy of the organization. The initiative is not a monolith; participants choose from among 20 different programs, ranging from hiking trips to archaeological digs to community service projects. (You can find out more at www.birthrightisrael.com)

The cost of Birthright Israel was breathtaking. Initially, Bronfman, Steinhardt, and the government of Israel (among others) committed $210 million to the program, and since then tens of millions more have been raised.

The founders faced criticism that the funds could have been used for other, better purposes such as day schools and community centers. But Bronfman and Steinhardt countered that connecting with their roots—in a way that only travel could make happen—was a prerequisite for young adults to want to remain involved in Jewish organizations and to raise their children in the culture. The initial evidence (and wild success of the program) bears them out. For instance, recent research undertaken by Brandeis University showed that Birthright Israel participants were nearly twice as likely as non-participants to say that their connection to Israel was very strong.

[Birthright Greece...]

A decade ago, I raised the idea that the global Greek community should consider building its own roots program — Birthright Greece, to give it a name. (Actually, at the time I had been agitating for the creation of a group called HelleniCorps, whose initial purpose would have been to train diaspora volunteers for the 2004 Olympics and which would eventually evolve into something like Birthright Israel). But nothing has emerged.

There is, to be sure, a smattering of heritage programs available to young global Hellenes. The General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad runs the “Filoxenia” camping program for 8-11 year olds (www.ggae.gr), and a variety of diaspora organizations sponsor a small number of summer youth visits to Greece. For college-age students, certain Hellenic studies programs (most generously, the one at Princeton University) provide funding for research in Greece.

And this summer will see the launch of an effort that resembles Birthright Israel by the Next Generation Initiative, which is a step towards a ‘Birthright Greece’ but this is still very small, involving only a handful of 18-22 year-olds.

[Surely our community is ready...]

Surely, the global Greek community is in the position to create a Birthright program. The wealth being generated by Hellenes would overwhelm even Croesus; Hellenic shipowners on their own could fund such an initiative with the crumbs from their profits in these heady days.

The advantages of an umbrella effort like Birthright Israel are many. Above all, it creates economies of scale in terms of logistics, marketing, fundraising, and the other challenges inherent in organizing such programs.

(In the Hellenic diaspora, we tend to underestimate the need for our initiatives to be managed by the best and the brightest in the marketplace; unfortunately, such managers cost too much for most diaspora organizations to afford, so they have recourse to heroic volunteers or to cousins. This isn’t enough.) It also can serve as a catalyst for our diaspora organizations to work together with a common cause. Groups like AHEPA, the Archdiocese, the PanCretans, and others could all avail themselves of the services of an effort like Birthright Israel.

Meanwhile, the benefits for Greece (and Cyprus) would be exceptional. To name just a few: Ties to the diaspora’s next generation would be strengthened; the program would help prop up the tourism sector in the off-season, since Birthright Hellenism could organize trips during spring, winter, and autumn breaks (and summer break for southern hemisphere participants would coincide with Greek winter); nearly all the funds would go straight into the Greek economy; and the initiative could spawn a new industry of “alternative” travel programs that would cater to participants beyond Birthright Hellenism.

[Investing in the next generation...]

The Metropolitan Museum in New York City recently inaugurated its new Greek and Roman Galleries, funded by tens of millions from such generous patrons as Mary and Michael Jaharis. These are important gifts. But it is time, too, for us all to invest in our living culture—and in the next generation.

Gregory Maniatis, Founding Publisher

ODYSSEY MAGAZINE July/August 2007