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

The program, organizers say, is intended to strengthen the ties between Israel and a young generation of diaspora Jews who may not feel as identified with the Jewish state as did their parents and grandparents who experienced the era of the Holocaust and the early days of Israel.

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

The program is sponsored jointly by the government of Israel, Jewish communities 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 only from the United States and Canada, but also from more far-flung communities in Russia, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile and India, program organizers said.

"It is an achievement that the philanthropists and Jewish communities around the world have come to the realization that the only way to restore a Jewish identity to (unaffiliated) Jews is to give them an experiential, spiritual and educational visit to Israel," said Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Michael Melchior, speaking at a news conference announcing the program.

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