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What’s Birthright doing during the pandemic? Glad you asked!

Twenty years ago, Birthright Israel was just a dream. Its goal was to combat the danger of a declining Jewish future and its founders hoped that if we could simply bring young diaspora Jews to Israel — to let them see and feel the land — that those young men and women would fall in love with the country and inspire future generations of Jews around the world.

Fast forward 20 years, and that dream had blossomed into a reality that none of us could ever have imagined. Since its inception, more than 750,000 Jewish young adults from 68 countries around the world have traveled the globe to participate in Birthright Israel programming. And over the course of those 20 years, we thought we had seen it all — all of the good and all of the bad.

But none of our careful contingency planning could have prepared us for a global health crisis like this. Nothing could have stopped us in our tracks the way that this virus has.

COVID-19 is the global event of our lifetime. What began as a contained problem has grown into a worldwide pandemic seldom seen, resulting in an unprecedented shutdown of business, travel and social gatherings, which are the building blocks of every Birthright Israel experience.

As the severity of the situation became clearer, we took immediate action. We implemented unprecedented measures we never thought we would have to, canceling all trips in the months of April and May to guarantee the safety of our most important assets — our people. Though it brought us great pain, we are confident this was the right decision to protect our cherished participants and staff.

And while we can’t wait to have our participants and staff back on the ground in Israel, until that time comes, you might wonder, what does a Jewish travel organization possibly have to do during a shutdown?

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As it turns out, there’s much to do! As an organization, we now have the opportunity to address some important tasks and questions that have arisen during our incredible growth over the last several years and assist those who are most in need.

While these are indeed unprecedented times, our innovation and mission to help others doesn’t stop. We are using this period to support our people, plan for our future and continue innovating.

One of our first priorities was to provide assistance to Birthright Israel trip organizers who were in need. We’ve provided financial advances to our partners to ensure they continue to thrive and reach every potential participant who is looking to receive the gift of a free trip to Israel.

We’ve also taken more time to nourish our relationships with past participants. Over the past few weeks alone, we’ve seen incredible and innovative ideas born, developed and implemented from our amazing Birthright Excel alumni, including Door 2 Dor, a tool to provide assistance to the elderly, and Seder.Live, a digital Passover haggadah designed to connect separated loved ones as a result of social distancing.

Additionally, we’ve launched an Olim assistance task force, which is providing assistance to recent immigrants to Israel who are facing a variety of COVID-19-related problems, including loss of work, housing issues and more.

We’ve moved our staff training online to ensure that our tour guides and educational staff will be at their absolute best when programming resumes. We’ve collaborated closely with our funders and partners to draw on their wisdom. And we’ve expressed our sincerest gratitude to all of those who have supported Birthright Israel over the last two decades.

We are fortunate to be in the position we are in to help those in need. And while these are dark and difficult times, we know there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. With that light will be tens of thousands of young Jews from all over the world who we cannot wait to introduce to Israel.

We promise that will be here waiting for them with open arms.

Gidi Mark is the CEO of Birthright Israel

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