Can Birthright Israel rebound in a post-COVID-19 world?

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: Birthright Israel is slowly coming back to Israel. An in-depth conversation with its veteran CEO, Gidi Mark, who has been working for the organization since its establishment.

 BIRTHRIGHT PARTICIPANTS gather in Jerusalem for a mega-event in 2017. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
BIRTHRIGHT PARTICIPANTS gather in Jerusalem for a mega-event in 2017.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

For close to a quarter of a century, young Jews around the world knew that they could participate, if they wished, in an educational tour of Israel – free of charge. Yet the past two years of a world pandemic have prevented this significant venture from doing its magic on young adults in Jewish communities.

Yet now, Birthright Israel is slowly coming back to Israel, and I sat for an in-depth conversation with its veteran CEO, Gidi Mark, who has been working for the organization since its establishment. 

Mark is a magician. He has created, with the help of the Jewish world’s finest philanthropists, a project that was seen as crazy back when discussed in the ’90s. Now, Birthright is an integral part of Jewish life.

When asked how COVID-19 affected the Jewish world’s largest educational project, Mark told The Jerusalem Post, “We were able to keep in touch with the hundreds of thousands of alumni, but also with those who have signed up and not yet participated on a Birthright Israel trip.”

He said there are 80,000 Jewish young men and women who have registered to participate in Birthright Israel trips in the last two years alone, yet only a small percentage of them actually arrived in Israel, due to strict COVID-19 restrictions. “Unfortunately, we had to cancel most of them [the trips] at the last minute because of closures and isolations in Israel.”

 BIRTHRIGHT CEO Gidi Mark: ''We understand that the pandemic is here to stay, and that we need to be creative and think of new ways to engage the young generation of Jews.''  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) BIRTHRIGHT CEO Gidi Mark: ''We understand that the pandemic is here to stay, and that we need to be creative and think of new ways to engage the young generation of Jews.'' (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

One of the initiatives that was made during these two years of barely any ability of Diaspora Jews to enter Israel was to create new programs for the next generation of Jews in the Diaspora. In January 2021, Birthright Israel announced a merger with Onward Israel.

“The potential merger seeks to strengthen Israel-Diaspora ties by expanding opportunities for young world Jewry to experience Israel in a variety of ways,” it was explained in the Post.

Onward Israel is a provider of mid-length Israel immersion experiences for Jewish young adults, and was originally launched with the Jewish Agency. Over 11,000 young people have been engaged in Onward Israel programming.

Mark explained that, “given our shared values, we saw an opportunity to combine Birthright’s programming – including our 10-day educational tours and Birthright Excel Fellowship – with Onward Israel’s longer internships and immersive living experiences. We decided, with the leadership of the Onward organization, to merge as of January 2022. Since then, they have become an integral part of Birthright Israel.” 

Mark explained that “Onward may be smaller, but their percentage of participants that dropped was a lot less substantial than ours. Onward declined from 2,800 participants a year to 2,000, yet Birthright drastically went down from 45,000 yearly to 10,000 participants.”

Mark added that he initiated a “digital arm” for Birthright, as he called it, “so we can continue to engage with our alumni and those who wanted to come to Israel but could not due to COVID-19. We understand that the pandemic is here to stay, and that we need to be creative and think of new ways to engage the young generation of Jews,” Mark explained. 

“We realized that [COVID-19] may be here forever. It is not known how long this will last. It is impossible for the leadership and educators of the Jewish people not to be able to control what happens to the younger generation. If in the past Birthright only had 10-day tours, we are now in a whole different situation: we now have programs that range between seven days and 70 days. We also have programs that have much more flexibility, leverage knowledge and a larger connection with different communities and donors. Most, if not all, of Onward’s donors are Birthright donors. It’s the same conception of Jewish Zionist education. It seems like a really natural connection.”

On the day the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, there were groups of Birthright from Ukraine and Russia in Israel.

“People could not return to where they came from,” Mark said. “It was frightening and sad. We helped the participants – some wanted to return to their families, some chose to stay in Israel and did not want to return home to Ukraine or Russia. We moved them to the Onward program for a month. We’ll extend the length of the period they can participate in Onward to at least two months.”

During 2021, an in-depth survey titled “Interest in and Comfort of Going on Birthright Trips in 2021” was conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University.

The data are drawn from 1,305 US respondents – young Jews who have shown interest in Birthright Israel. Some of the key takeaways are that over 70% of applicants have not been to Israel, one-third have had no formal Jewish education, and one-third are from families in which only one parent is Jewish. 

Furthermore, COVID-19 has touched the lives of many applicants. One in four contracted COVID-19, including 6% who were very ill. Two in three had someone close infected, including 25% who had someone close who was very ill or died.

“For nearly half, participating in Birthright is a high priority; for another third, it is somewhat of a priority,” the report said, “We expect that, once it is safe to do so, there will be substantial demand for the trips. Being fully vaccinated would make the vast majority comfortable participating in Birthright. They would be more comfortable traveling with a smaller group than a larger group (20 participants vs 40). 

“Birthright, with its expertise in providing group experiences that build and enhance social bonds, is uniquely positioned to meet Jewish young adults’ pressing need for meaningful social connections. Birthright demonstrated an impact in increasing participants’ connection to Israel and enhancing their Jewish identity, which underscores its important function during this time.”

Mark explained that one of the major difficulties with bringing tens of thousands of Jews to Israel in 2022 is that the prices of hotel rooms have rocketed in Israel.

“One of the difficulties is the crazy prices of hotel rooms in Israel” he said. “I guess when more Israelis fly abroad, the situation will get back to normal. This is the biggest challenge we have.

“There is tremendous enthusiasm. This year, for example, unlike previous years, we will establish a Zoom meeting for all of the participants, ahead of the group coming to Israel, to speak of their expectations and allow these people to be given a more complete experience. There will also be cool and cutting-edge online content and more follow-up opportunities online.”

Mark said there is a difference between the Gen Z participants and millennials.

“We are an organization that listens a lot to our participants. We want to be completely relevant to our clients. We are facing Gen Z and their preferences. They want more in-depth content, discussions on common Jewish values and more quality content.

“Thankfully, the IDF and Israeli universities are continuing to collaborate with us and sending Israeli participants. We see that this has a great impact on the Israelis themselves who accompany them [the Birthright participants]. A large portion of Israelis do not understand Judaism or even know the concept of Shabbat or havdalah. We will start working more on discussions of values as a basis for conversations; take advantage of the tour not to introduce messages but to give the participants a basis for a Jewish identity and a sterile space to express themselves without fear of censorship, etc.”

Mark said that there is “a new phenomenon” of “fear of college from antisemitism on campus, which is very preoccupying to them. Not everyone can say what they want [to say] all the time on US campuses. There are also anti-Israel sentiments on campuses. Unfortunately, there are young Jews around the world who are anti-Israel. Not everyone agrees with everything the Israeli government decides. Some of them are very critical.

“Coming from Jewish progressive sides, the most extreme expression is BDS and the like. I must say that it does not exist in all universities. There are universities that are known for having a strong progressive emphasis. I see an increase in the number of students who sign up for Birthright there. In my opinion these acts in universities don’t weaken the matter but, rather, strengthen them.”