Gidi Mark, CEO of Taglit-birthright israel, does not mince his words when he emphatically states that after 10 years of providing free trips to Israel for young Jews from around the world, the organization has made it "cool" to be Jewish.
"When we started out, the initiative was based on promoting Jewish continuity," begins the 50-something Mark, who before taking up the Jewish identity challenge, spent his years working for the Foreign Ministry. "At that time we had been witnessing a distancing of young Diaspora Jews not only from the State of Israel but also from their communities. Based on various research studies at that time, our primary aim was to reconnect the younger generation through an Israel experience."
That concept was coined prior to the December 1999 launch of birthright israel's first 10-day trip here. Nowadays, says Mark, despite initial opposition and in contrary to its cynics, the unique program "has created a buzz among young Jews that it's cool to be Jewish and it's cool to have Jewish friends."
For many of those that come on the trips, he says, "it's the first time in their lives they have ever met such a large group of young Jews."
"It's hard to really believe it until you see it, but in many respects birthright for some is a gathering place, a synagogue, a Jewish community center all experienced for 10 days," he says, adding that in combination with social media such as Facebook, the effects of the birthright experience continue long after the trip ends. "Today we have thousands of groups on the Internet allowing participants to keep in touch with one another between their visits."
In addition to the social aspect, Mark points out that birthright has also contributed to Jewish continuity and enhanced the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
According to a study into the long-term impact of birthright, which was published this week by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, the 10-day tour has a profound long-term effect on Jewish identity and connectedness to Israel.
Conducted independently of the birthright organization, researchers found that 73 percent of participants felt their experiences on the trip had been very or somewhat life-changing.
In addition, it found that participants were 23% more likely than nonparticipants to report feeling connected to Israel and 24% more likely to have a strong sense of connection to the Jewish people.
FOUNDED AS a partnership between private Jewish philanthropists - today they contribute some 55% of the program's funding - a collaboration of Jewish communities and the Jewish Agency for Israel (22% contribution) and with 23% from the Israeli government, birthright has to date brought more than a quarter of a million Jews from 52 countries.
The program, which is free for participants, also generates some NIS 1.5 billion into the Israeli economy, utilizing hotels, transportation, restaurants, tourist sites and, of course, souvenir shopping.
With birthright's success difficult to deny, Mark adds that it has also won out in the face of stiff opposition from the existing Jewish establishment which originally believed that the program was tackling the issue all wrong.
"People said that 10 days was too short for a trip; they told us that the age group we were targeting was too old, that 18- to 26-year-olds are too difficult to change; they criticized us for being too open with our participant base and for using private companies to run the program," Mark says. "We came with at least 10 new ideas and each one was shot down; none of it was easy to swallow for those doing it already."
However, he goes on, "it is very hard to argue against our success, I think birthright israel is recognized today as the most successful project in the Jewish world.
"After so many years of young Jews distancing themselves from their own Jewish communities and from Israel, we are now seeing the beginning of a shift and people are now coming back to their hometown. Our goal now is to imprint Israel in the DNA of every young Jew and consequently change the future of the Jewish people."
What is birthright israel's biggest challenge today?
Our biggest challenge is the funding. This past winter we had more than 21,000 applicants for only 8,000 places and we've now become the most wait-listed program in the Jewish world.
Unfortunately, close to 80% of those who apply and are rejected do not apply again and we have no way of dealing with that. It is very frustrating.
The only solution is to find more funding. If we had more money, we could send up to 50,000 people to Israel a year. Israel is capable of absorbing them and we have shown that we have no problem in facilitating them.
So, your main goal is to increase numbers to bring as many people as possible?
Our main goal is for within five to seven years to have 51,000 participants coming to Israel on birthright every year from all around the world. That figure is about half of the number of Jews born on average outside of the State of Israel. So once we start bringing 51,000 young Jews every year, for the first time since the exile of Jews around 2,000 years ago most Jewish people will have the chance to come to Israel.
This will be a revolution and in a way will complete the process that started with the establishment of Israel. It will also be recognition that Israel is the most important project of the Jewish people in thousands of years.
Obviously funding such a project is a big issue. How do you plan to raise funds in the midst of a global economic crisis?
I believe that most, if not all, of our partners favor this goal. Now all we have to do is to sit together and see how we'll reach it financially. Obviously, we are always looking for additional funders and we'd like Jewish communities around the world to take a bigger role in this.
However, unlike most other Jewish organizations birthright israel did manage to increase its funding in 2009. Although we are still very far from our desire to send all the participants that we want to Israel, it is encouraging that more and more people are starting to understand the importance of such a trip.
But how do you persuade philanthropists and organizations that this is a good investment?
I think that sometimes a crisis can force givers to rethink the direction of their donation and I am sure that birthright israel will stick out in whatever considerations people have. It is already becoming clear that the return on this investment is very high; all research supports this assumption.
Birthright has been in existence for 10 years now and many of its alumni are young leaders in their communities. Do you propose getting this group more involved in supporting the organization?
There are a quarter of a million alumni around the world and, yes, it is now time that we implement a program to encourage their assistance. There is already an alumni association in the US and we are in the process of establishing more and more such organizations. Even in Israel we plan to start one.
Already, many of our alumni are in leadership roles. The majority of Hillel leaders are birthright alumni and many of the long-term Israel programs are filled with former birthright participants. Also, the most active Jews on campus have experienced birthright. Altogether it's difficult to imagine young Jewish leaders existing without birthright.
Obviously birthright is heading in the right direction, but has the program damaged other Israel-focused programs, especially the teen tour market? Is there enough room for everyone?
One of the reasons we decided to deal with the college-age market was so that we would not hurt the high school groups coming. It was the [second] intifada that affected them, not birthright, but now their numbers are back up and are the same as they were at the start of 2000.
Unfortunately, none of us has reached our limit and there is a lot of room for all organizations to grow in terms of numbers. I think the main goal here is for everyone to try to sell Israel.
Getting people to Israel doesn't seem to be the problem. How does birthright address the misconceptions of Israelis about Diaspora Jews, especially those from the US?
We are aware of the huge ignorance among many Israelis that do not understand the complexity of Jewish life in the Diaspora, but since the start of birthright, more than 40,000 Israelis have participated in the mifgashim [encounters] program.
Many of them come from elite army units and are the people that will one day be running the country. From the feedback, we know that meeting with young Diaspora Jews has allowed many of them to change their views of being Jewish.
For an Israeli, encountering other Jews makes us look more at our own Jewish identity. Living in Israel we do not think about our Jewish identity that much, but after five days with Diaspora Jews, the Israelis become much more aware of their Judaism and of being part of something much bigger outside the State of Israel.
It seems as if the whole world is condemning Israel these days and anti-Israel activity is rife on campuses across the US. How do you prepare these young people in just 10 days to be advocates for the Jewish state once they return home?
In order for a person to counter hostile attitudes he/she needs to have two elements: The first is the right attitude and a desire; the second is content. Obviously 10 days is very short but we are able to ignite that first part.
The people that come on our trips arrive with between 18 and 26 years of condensed international news clips of Israel. Their perception is usually of the strong Israelis against the weak Arabs, but once they get here and see that Israelis are not all like the ones portrayed in the media their views begin to change.
Once they return to their campuses, they are more aware and they know the truth; it's easier for them to defend Israel. Even though they don't know all the details, they feel they understand the reality more.