Within three years, Taglit-Birthright Israel plans to be sending 50,000 young Jews to Israel annually on a free 10-day trip, thanks to a new $100 million commitment from the Israeli government.
But this enhanced funding comes with a catch: North American Jews are on the hook to keep pace with the increase in Israeli grants — a tall order, as fundraising at Jewish federations continues to stagnate in the wake of the recession.
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu announced the matching grant, which represents a steep acceleration in the rate of Israeli governmental support to the program, in a speech to Birthright participants January 6. The Israeli government has given Birthright $100 million over the past 10 years.
Representatives of North America’s Jewish federations and the Birthright Israel Foundation, Birthright’s American fundraising arm, said that they believed they could meet their new fundraising goals, though they did not specify exactly how much money each is expected to raise. Birthright officials estimate that it costs about $3,000 to send each participant to Israel.
“It will be a stretch,” said Robert Aronson, president of the Birthright Israel Foundation. “But I think we can do it.”
The new Israeli funding comes just as financial support from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson runs dry. Adelson, once Birthright’s largest individual donor, gave $10 million in 2010, in what was the last installment in a multi-year commitment. The billionaire’s wealth took a well-publicized hit during the 2008 financial crisis, but Birthright officials said that they expected him to continue to give in 2011.
Birthright suffered a funding scare in 2008, when Adelson’s foundation announced that it would halve his donations in 2009 and 2010. In the wake of that and other financial calamities, Birthright cut the number of young Jews it sent to Israel in 2010 to 30,000, from 42,000 in 2008. The Israeli government grant promises to reverse that trend.
“What I want to do is to have young Jews from everywhere, who want to come to Israel, come to Israel, because I think this can dramatically help us strengthen Jewish identity,” Netanyahu said when announcing the gift.
The Israeli government’s contribution will rise slowly over the next three years, going from $26 million in 2011 to $40 million in 2013. Taglit-Birthright Israel’s operating budget in 2011 will be $87 million, up from $76 million in 2010.
As part of the arrangement with the Israeli government, the Birthright Israel Foundation is expected to raise $58.6 million in 2011 — a $10 million jump up from its total take in 2010. According to Aronson, the additional funds will come not only from the major philanthropists, whose contributions make up between 60% and 70% of the total raised by the foundation, but also from smaller donors.
“We’ve got to go nationwide and try to get the fundraising for Birthright Israel to be viewed as a total American Jewish responsibility, not just the responsibility of a few families,” Aronson said.
Birthright’s fundraising base has already expanded. While only 2,000 individuals gave to the foundation in 2008, Aronson said 14,000 gave in 2010.
Though these individual donors are presumably the same people that the local federations supporting Birthright target in their own fundraising campaigns, Jewish Federations of North America president and CEO Jerry Silverman said that he didn’t mind the apparent competition.
Silverman estimated that federations give about $13 million a year to Birthright, including funds channeled through the Jewish Agency for Israel. He could not estimate how much that number would increase in 2011.
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Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.