(RNS) Some 16,000 Jewish college students from around the world areto begin arriving in Israel this week as part of a new "BirthrightIsrael International" program designed to give more young diaspora Jewsa chance to visit the Jewish state.

The program, organizers say, is intended to strengthen the tiesbetween Israel and a young generation of diaspora Jews who may not feelas identified with the Jewish state as did their parents andgrandparents who experienced the era of the Holocaust and the early daysof Israel.

Typically, only about 1,200 college-age Jews visit Israel everyyear, a number that reflects both the high cost of a visit as well asthe what some experts perceive to be a declining interest in Israelamong young diaspora Jews.

The program is sponsored jointly by the government of Israel, Jewishcommunities around the world, and individual Jewish philanthropists,including the multi-millionaire magnate Charles Bronfman.

The $210 million, five-year program will recruit young Jews not onlyfrom the United States and Canada, but also from more far-flungcommunities in Russia, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile and India, programorganizers said.

"It is an achievement that the philanthropists and Jewishcommunities around the world have come to the realization that the onlyway to restore a Jewish identity to (unaffiliated) Jews is to give theman experiential, spiritual and educational visit to Israel," saidMinister of Diaspora Affairs, Michael Melchior, speaking at a newsconference announcing the program.