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Steinhardt Ally To Head Birthright

One of the most prominent Jewish organizations has announced that it is replacing its current executive with the ally of one of its signature donors.

The Birthright Israel Foundation, which raises private donations to support free trips to Israel for young Jews, announced that Robert Aronson would assume its helm at the beginning of 2009. Aronson is closely tied to philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, one of Birthright Israel’s founders and one of its most prominent backers.

Aronson will replace current Birthright Israel Foundation CEO Jay Golan, who has led the foundation since it was established in the summer of 2005.

The move comes as Birthright, considered one of the great success stories of the organized Jewish world, grapples with the difficult economy. The organization has declared that its budget will decline from $110 million to $75 million in 2009 and that the number of trips it sponsors will drop from 42,000 to 25,000.

One major reason for the shortfall has been the decision of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to slash his donation to Birthright from over $30 million in 2008 to $20 million in 2009 and $10 million in 2010, despite declarations he had reportedly made that he would maintain a steady contribution of $30 million per year. Adelson’s announcement came after a year in which his casino company, Las Vegas Sands, has lost billions in its value and reportedly teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Birthright has also been hurt by a combination of high travel costs within Israel, a comparatively weak American dollar, and cuts in the Israeli government’s contribution to Birthright.

Despite Adelson’s contributions, which dwarf all other donors, Birthright Israel remains closely identified with Steinhardt, who helped launch the program in 1999.

Aronson has represented Steinhardt in negotiations with Birthright as the president of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, a position he will keep. Aronson has also worked with Steinhardt in setting up the Areivim Fund, a fund of $100 million being raised from major donors in $5 million increments to be devoted to Jewish identity-building and education.

Aronson recently announced he would step down as the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, but he remains in charge there, as well, while the federation searches for a replacement.

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