Birthright Israel Builds a Solid Foundation

Successful ‘Experiment’ Strives To Become a Permanent Fixture With a Secure Future

By Nathaniel Popper

Published November 11, 2005, issue of November 11, 2005.
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Birthright Israel is only six years old, but it already has established itself as one of the most successful programs in the Jewish world. Steps are now being taken to make it a permanent part of the Jewish landscape.

When Birthright was founded by a handful of innovative philanthropists, “it was an experiment,” said Charles Bronfman, one of the initiators. The idea — to take unaffiliated young adults on a free 10-day trip to Israel — was a new one, and its success was far from certain. “During the intifada, we didn’t know from one year to the next if there would be Birthright,” Bronfman told the Forward.

But the program has boomed. Since 1999, Birthright has taken 88,000 Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 to Israel. Total trip participation is expected to exceed 100,000 this winter.

As Birthright has grown larger and more secure, the philanthropists behind the venture have established a foundation to give the program a broader and more permanent footing. The skeleton of the foundation has existed since 2000, but previously it was essentially a vehicle for the 14 founding philanthropists to pass on their donations to the headquarters in Israel. In the past year, though, the foundation has taken on an independent board. In July, a president was hired: Jay Golan, former senior director of Carnegie Hall in New York. Since coming on board, Golan has been seeking funding from donors beyond the founding philanthropists.

“Once the young adults came running,” Bronfman said, “we knew that this wasn’t just a temporary success — this was a long term part of the Jewish being. The funding would be impossible for a few people to do, and we had to get professional about it.”

Birthright Israel runs on a unique funding system. The 14 donors paid about one-third of the costs and enlisted local Jewish federations and the Israeli govern-

ment to pay the other two-thirds. The original idea was that each group would pay $100 million over five years. The Israeli government decided early on that it would give much less, however, and last year the government donated no money at all; often the philanthropists have been tapped when there were shortfalls. The foundation will push the Jewish federations to give more, and it also will bolster the funding coming from philanthropists.

In addition to making the funding sources more constant, the foundation is aiming to make participants’ experience more long term. Money will be raised, and programs will be organized for participants after they come home. When Birthright began, the organizers did little for participants after they returned from their free trip. The founders assumed that participants would come home and tap into the synagogues and federations that already existed in their communities. But, Golan said, “there was a growing realization that wasn’t necessarily happening.”

Golan is in the process of hiring a national post-programming director. The foundation already has professionals in 14 cities planning events for former Birthright participants. For instance, New York’s post-programming director recently organized a night with a New York Police Department intelligence analyst and a night of playing Texas Hold’em poker. Golan is planning to raise $2 million for post-programming next year.

The core of the Birthright experience is still the 10-day trip. Anyone aged 18 to 26 who has one Jewish parent and has never been on a group trip to Israel is eligible to go. More than 20 independent trip organizers recruit young people and run the trips. About 400 trips leave per year, with 40 participants each.

The program met with skepticism when it was first created. Federation officials worried that it would eat away at their Israel missions for students. Some community leaders said that a 10-day trip would have no lasting effect.

But a study from Brandeis University researchers earlier this year showed that the Jewish identification of participants increased even years after the trip. The study found that before their trip, Birthright participants were less likely than non-participants to want to date someone Jewish. But three years after returning from Israel, Birthright veterans are more interested than nonparticipants in dating Jewish. Moreover, the trip is attracting to Jewish life people who have stayed away in the past; 28% of participants said they were “just Jewish” rather than affiliated with any movement.

The biggest problem has been an inability to accommodate all the young people who sign up — 30,000 applicants have been turned away in the past year alone — a problem largely caused by funding shortfalls. When Birthright was created, the plan was to spend $300 million over five years. Six years on, the donors have put together only $158 million in total.

However, many of the 14 original philanthropists were signed on for only a five-year commitment to Birthright, and not all have signed on for another term. The new foundation is hoping to bring new voices into the organization. The foundation now has 31 members on its board; all of them are donors to Birthright, and they also will be seeking out smaller donors beyond the board.

Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, said the foundation’s efforts to attract smaller donors would not be easy. Charendoff, who worked with Bronfman’s philanthropies when the program began, said that Birthright has come to be identified with the small pool of original donors. Therefore, it is not an obvious place to turn for philanthropists. “I don’t think that most private donors understand their ability to impact this program,” Charendoff said.

But Charendoff also said that because of the number of kids who have been turned away from Birthright, the foundation should have an easy time showing donors what a difference their donations could make. Each young Jew costs Birthright in the neighborhood of $2,500.

“When you look at the success story,” Golan said, “it is one of the very few areas in Jewish life where demand exceeds availability by such a high level.”

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