What does the future hold for cash-strapped Birthright Israel?

JEWISH WORLD: Israeli government officials who know Birthright explained that the issue was, first of all, the rising costs of tourism in Israel, mainly hotels.

 BIRTHRIGHT ISRAEL participants at a mega-gathering in Jerusalem (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
BIRTHRIGHT ISRAEL participants at a mega-gathering in Jerusalem
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Birthright Israel has become an institution over the last two decades. Over 800,000 young Jews, mainly from North America, who have never been to Israel, have taken advantage of its generous offer of a free 10-day trip to introduce them to the country of their heritage.

But in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic and facing financial constraints, have we seen the organization’s heyday beginning a decline?

Is Birthright Israel in decline?

As published exclusively by The Jerusalem Post this week, Birthright Israel’s budget has been cut, causing the organization to slash, by up to a third, the number of participants it can take to Israel in 2023.

The Birthright Israel Foundation, the organization’s funding arm, said it is in conversation with its largest donors to brief them about this development and said they are confident to be able to continue supporting Birthright Israel.

But a significant shortage remains, and Birthright Israel is on a mission to seek contributions from the wider American Jewish community to maintain the organization’s provision of the critical program.

First birthright trip to Israel in over a year. (credit: EREZ UZIR)First birthright trip to Israel in over a year. (credit: EREZ UZIR)

How the Birthright Israel project began

BIRTHRIGHT ISRAEL was a start-up, a project that has made waves and generated a lot of attention since 1999. It is a project that many also tried to sabotage and close down. But the coolness and freshness of what it had to offer, together with a small group of strong and committed donors, allowed it to blossom and become the largest Jewish project in the world.

Birthright Israel is an initiative that was founded by Israeli and Jewish American leaders, offering a 10-day educational tour of Israel for free to young Jews in the Diaspora between the ages of 18 and 26.

“When I was offered to become a tour guide on a Birthright Israel group for the first time, my manager said: You can work with one bus this summer, but please, don’t become a Birthright snob,” a former tour guide with Birthright during its first years explained.

“As a young tour guide, I just fell in love. These weren’t your average groups of American teenagers that you had to discipline and who had no interest in what you had to say. Many of the participants were some of the smartest young Jews in North America. Everything about Birthright was sexy, fresh and new. They were also just so surprised that someone would pay for a 10-day vacation in a different country,” he said. “I became a Birthright snob,” he admitted, smiling.

“As the years went by, I got a bit tired of these groups,” the tour guide said. “Everything began repeating itself; we visited the same sights, and the same situations occurred. At a certain point, I needed to take a break from Birthright and only returned working with them a few years later.

“It is no doubt an educational program that [can] affect any Diaspora Jew, as well as Israelis who participate. There is this magic which cannot be explained by words,” he added, and explained that “Birthright’s magic is still there, but it’s become something that is a given. The participants aren’t surprised anymore by the generosity of these philanthropists. Some of [the participants] actually feel as if they deserve it.”

Birthright Israel Foundation’s president and CEO, Israel “Izzy” Tapoohi, said this week that it’s a myth that Birthright Israel is funded by just a few large donors, including the Israeli government and the Adelson Family Foundation.

“Birthright Israel Foundation’s support comes from donors at all levels,” he said.

According to a Haaretz report, the Adelson family decided to minimize its contribution to Birthright, and therefore, according to the report, the project was suffering. The report suggested that the donations were cut from $40 million to $10m. in 2023. For the past few years, Haaretz has been consistent in publishing negative articles about Birthright, at times even a few articles a month. It criticized the organization when the Adelsons decided to donate larger sums, and it criticized it when they allegedly cut back.

Israeli government officials who know Birthright explained that the issue was, first of all, the rising costs of tourism in Israel, mainly hotels, as Birthright claimed.

Birthright Israel’s creators always feared one major factor: They didn’t want to be considered part of the established organized Jewish communal world, and they did very well at that for many years. Birthright succeeded despite the triumphs of different players in the so-called Jewish establishment to close it down. The Jewish Agency wasn’t happy about Birthright, since it wasn’t affiliated with the agency, and the Jewish Federations of North America wasn’t happy back in the day about this young and nonconforming organization offering something that seemed wild at the time.

Yet, in its 23 years of existence, Birthright Israel has become, to an extent, part of the Jewish establishment. Most of the employees at all major (and minor) Jewish organizations in the Diaspora under the age of 45 are alumni of Birthright.

Becoming part of the Jewish establishment isn’t necessarily something bad, it’s just very different from what made this project become the most successful and powerful Jewish organization.

Every young Jew in the Diaspora knows that at the age of 18, they have the opportunity to visit Israel for free, just as they know that at the age of 12 a girl has a bat mitzvah and at the age of 13 a boy has a bar mitzvah. This in itself is a good thing, and Birthright leadership wanted this to become something that every Jew knows they can or will experience. But when you become something that everyone knows about, you are no longer that new kid on the block whom everyone wants to meet and hang out with. You are that friend you know who will always be there, and what Birthright may have tried to cause this week is that they want us to understand that without support and funding, it will cease to exist.

Birthright’s model from the start was very different from other Jewish organizations. It had a small headquarters in Jerusalem, and the majority of the work was done by external local “operators,” as they are considered, mainly tourism companies. In addition, there were, and still are, different types of Birthright trips through their “providers.” These are Jewish organizations such as Hillel, Chabad or the Reform movement. These organizations recruit the college students or the young professionals and are able to bring them on this free educational trip – through one of the operators based in Israel.

Many incoming Israeli tourism companies based a large proportion of their yearly activity on Birthright groups. Now that the number of participants will be about a third less and possibly more, these companies will need to reinvent themselves and find other types of clients in order to stay relevant and have their income steady.

“Many organizations or companies are going to need to downsize their staff that have been with Birthright for years,” one tour operator said. She explained that “many of the tour guides will need to find other types of income, since many of them work only with or mainly with Birthright,” she said.

Before COVID-19, Birthright changed the age group of young Jews who could participate in Birthright, extending it to the age of 32. This was done since the organization was having difficulties involving the same number of participants as before. Birthright always strived to achieve 50,000 participants a year. Yet sources close to Birthright said the change had the opposite effect.

“The second you understand you have 14 years to participate in Birthright, this lowered the pressure on the individual to sign up,” the source explained. “You also can’t create a program that will suit 18-year-olds that will also cater to 30-year-olds. People are interested in different things when they are 18 and when they are 32,” the source said.

The Post understands that Birthright acknowledged this mistake and has lowered the participants’ age limit.

There is also a snowball effect that could result if Birthright has less participants yearly. For the past two decades, most of the participants in longer Israel-focused programs, such as Masa Israel or Onward Israel, were Birthright alums. “If Birthright has fewer participants, this will directly influence the number of participants in other programs,” a senior Jewish professional said.

Asked about the reasons for Birthright’s difficulty in recruiting more participants before COVID-19, this senior Jewish professional explained that “when something becomes more institutionalized, it’s very different than what it was at the beginning.” Since Birthright is considered part of the “establishment,” she explained that “many of the Gen-Z Jews don’t want to feel as if the ‘establishment’ is telling them what they should think about Israel. They want to feel as if they have the ability to choose to do so on their own.”

One of the challenges Birthright had during the past few years was of fringe organizations – such as IfNotNow and others which don’t exist anymore – that tried to portray Birthright as an organization that will not tell the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One tour provider explained that “groups like IfNotNow weren’t as successful as they would have liked to be, since they were a very small yet vocal group of young Jews who were trying to get their message across. But if the large silent majority of American Jews will be smaller as result of the budget cuts, the extreme voices will become louder.”

Sources in Birthright explained that there is a substantial reason that they insist on bringing masses of Jews to Israel. “Without quantity, we won’t be able to leave a mark on an entire generation, which is exactly what we want.”

One reason for the lower number of participants is the low birth rate of non-Orthodox Jews. The 2022 Pew survey indicates that fertility among Orthodox Jews in the US is at least twice as high as among non-Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jewish adults report having an average of 3.3 children, while non-Orthodox Jews have an average of 1.4 children. Birthright was originally created in order to cater to the needs of the unaffiliated or progressive Diaspora Jews who don’t have a deep enough Jewish education or commitment toward Jewish values and Israel.

Orthodox Jews can also participate in its programs, but Birthright isn’t focused on ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Jews.

“In my opinion, there is no difference between an anti-Zionist 18-year-old Satmar Hassid in Brooklyn and an 18-year-old college student who thinks that Israel is an apartheid state,” a leader in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community said. “Both of these young Jews are at risk of antisemitic harm and both are identified with Israel. They are seen as representing Israel, which in many respects, according to their ideology, mistreats the Palestinians. We have a bilateral relationship here, whether we like it or not. We should have every interest to reach both of these populations.”

MANY OF the Jewish organizational leaders who participated in the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America a few weeks ago in Chicago spoke of their fear regarding the cuts in Birthright budgets.

“Birthright should make us feel a part of this crisis and the search for solutions,” one Jewish leader said. “We all agree that Birthright is important and vital to our survival as a nation, when there is barely anything that Jews can agree upon. Why won’t Birthright allow us to join them, sit around a table, until we find solutions?” he asked. “We are willing to knock on thousands of doors until we find enough funding. Instead of Birthright just saying ‘We’re cutting the budget work accordingly,’ why won’t they say, ‘Let’s find a solution for this together’?”

The thing is, Birthright won its silent battle with the institutional Jewish world. Everyone agrees that the program is positive and vital, yet what these organizations are telling Birthright is the following: We aren’t that generation that fought against you. Let us help you, just as you’ve helped us educate our employees and leadership.

Birthright Israel said that the donation numbers published by Haaretz were “inaccurate,” and that the Adelson family has been donating an annual sum of $10m. for the past 3 years, since 2020, and despite the many lockdowns and Birthright’s inability to operate large numbers of trips.

Birthright’s narrative is totally financial: It has seen a 29% increase in the daily price for buses, a 47% rise in daily hotel costs and a 30% increase in tour guide rates. In addition, there is a more moderate increase in flight prices of 10%-15%.

In 2019, the $150m. that was raised allowed the participation of nearly 50,000 young Jews from the Diaspora. Since there has been a 30% increase in prices, Birthright’s budget would need to rise to about $200m. in order to fund the same number of participants.

“I don’t think Dr. [Miriam] Adelson needs to fund the entire Jewish people,” a senior official at Birthright told the Post. “There are seven million Jews outside of Israel, and this is a project for each one of them.”

According to the source, Adelson and her late husband, Sheldon, “donated half-a-billion dollars in Jewish education via Birthright. There is no philanthropist in the world who gave so much towards Jewish education. The Adelson family is still very committed to Birthright. Dr. Adelson thinks we are an excellent organization, and she agrees that we need quality and quantity, which are critical to the continuity of the Jewish nation.”

The senior Birthright official explained that, over the years, the organization’s fundraising arm asked the couple to bring more donors on board in order to maintain the stability of Birthright, instead of adding donations.

“I think... there shouldn’t be a limited number of donors, but actually millions of small donors,” the official said. “The future of the Jewish people cannot be placed only on the shoulders of Dr. Adelson and her family. She should be applauded and given all the awards in the world for her investment in bringing hundreds of thousands of young Jews to Israel without trying to force any agenda whatsoever.”

The need for the increase in budget is two-and-a-half times the decrease in donations, the senior official in Birthright concluded.

In addition, the government could change the basic model of Birthright. Since its founding, Birthright has been receiving funding from the Prime Minister’s Office, constituting a third of the budget. If the government decides to, it could change the percentage of matching funds it invests in Birthright.

Presumptive prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during his first term, was actually the first prime minister to decide to invest in this program. Maybe the government will actually be the one to solve this problem.