Enabling more young Jewish adults with developmental or physical disabilities to participate in Birthright Israel is one of the goals of the Azrieli Foundation, which this week announced a $5-million donation over five years to the program.
Foundation chief operating officer Dena Libman said the gift is intended to ensure that no eligible person with special needs is prevented from taking part in the free 10-day educational trip to Israel because of financial considerations.
Birthright Israel does organize trips designed for those with disabilities, and does a good job of it, she said. However, there are extra costs. Participants may need a shadow to accompany them, for example, or those using wheelchairs require special adapted buses.
Birthright trips include a mifgash program in which the Diaspora Jews dialogue with their Israeli peers. On trips for those with special needs, participants meet Israelis with disabilities, Libman said.
The Toronto-based Azrieli Foundation hopes that with this new funding, Birthright will publicize and actively recruit eligible people with special needs, she said. Canadian agencies such as the Rena Foundation in Toronto and Miriam Foundation in Montreal, which work with disabled adults, can play a role in that effort, she added.
Supporting Birthright fits the Azrieli Foundation’s mandate of promoting education and connection with Israel, she said. Since 2012, the Toronto-based foundation has been providing funds to Maccabi Canada’s Israel experience program for young people.
The Azrieli Foundation is also committed to enhancing the quality of life and continuing education for adults with developmental disabilities. In addition, it supports research into neurodevelopmental disorders and particularly Fragile X syndrome, one of the most common inherited forms of developmental impairment.
This week’s donation, which includes a matching gift, or challenge grant, component, was made to the Birthright Israel Foundation of Canada. It will also be used to increase the opportunity for able Canadians to take part. Currently, Birthright receives more applications from Canadians than it can accommodate, Libman said.
Also this week, American billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s family foundation has announced that it will be donating another $40 million to the Birthright Israel Foundation, with a $20-million challenge grant, to add to the $140 million it has already given.
The Azrieli Foundation will also be contributing its resources to the Holocaust educational component of Birthright trips. The foundation has for the past decade been collecting and publishing the memoirs of survivors living in Canada.
More than 50 books have been published and, in the past couple of years, about 20 videos based on interviews with the memoirs’ authors have been produced.
These short films will be made available for screening at the preparatory program held the evening before Birthright groups visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, as all groups do, Libman said. The books will be offered free of charge to participants before or after their trip.
The Azrieli Foundation is challenging other philanthropists to contribute to the Birthright Israel Foundation of Canada through a matching gift program, with no cap set.
Since 2000, approximately 350,000 young adults from more than 60 countries have gone on Birthright trips.