Groundbreaking Birthright program turns 15

The program that has brought 500,000 young Jews on a free trip to Israel looks to the future.

Birthright (photo credit: TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT)
(photo credit: TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT)
ATLANTA – The sultry strains of a well-preserved Michael Bolton crooning over a playback of “When A Man Loves a Woman” fill the spacious sitting room of a palatial Atlanta mansion.
Over 80 well-heeled American Jews are gathered at the home of Eyal and Aviva Postelniks as a reward for their involvement in the Birthright Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the groundbreaking organization that is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.
“I’m involved because I really believe that Birthright is the driving force that’s going to ensure the future of the Jewish people,” said one of the attendees, Brad, as he scooped up a plate of couscous and beef chunks from the sumptuous buffet.
A seemingly successful investment banker from New York, Brad has been donating his time and money to Birthright for over five years and was involved with planning the fourth annual Birthright Israel conference that was to begin in earnest the next day.
It was that kind of fervent belief of being part of a vitally important and wildly successful endeavor that brought the group together from all over the US and Israel. The numbers seem to back up that faith. Since 2000, Birthright has brought 500,000 Jewish students and post-college participants aged 18 to 26 from 66 countries on a free 10-day trip to Israel.
Post-trip statistics and research have shown that participants not only are likely to become more involved with their Jewish communities back home, but 90 percent describe themselves as feeling closer to Israel as a result of their trip and 30% have returned to the country on their own.
That helps explain the passion that people like Brad have toward Birthright, and they are indeed pretty impressive laurels to rest on. However, the focus of the Atlanta conference was not a self-congratulatory soapbox but an involved discussion on how to engage the next 500,000 Birthright participants and to motivate the already active donors, board members and alumni to take on even more significant roles.
Sessions with titles like “Who Are They and How Can We Reach Them?” and “Beyond the Bus: Re-Imagining Post-Trip Engagement” reflect the commonly held feeling among Birthright insiders that reaching the next 500,000 participants is going to require some innovative rethinking.
Tonight, however, it was celebration time for the senior organizational staff, prominent donors and one of its major funders, co-founder Charles Bronfman.
The crowd swayed and swooned to Bolton’s still powerful pipes and later giddily posed for selfies with the veteran Jewish singer who recently visited Israel for the first time. Toasts were made and the Israeli expat hosts the Postelniks, who produce the navigation systems for GM cars in South America, greeted the guests with unforced warmth and enthusiasm.
“We don’t spend much time congratulating ourselves; we don’t allow ourselves that luxury,” said Dr. Zohar Raviv, Birthright’s international vice president of education, who has been instrumental in developing the multifaceted Birthright framework. And over the next 48 hours, his words would be borne out time and time again.
Rite of passage Everyone knows about Birthright. It has become part of the contemporary lexicon. In Israel, the ubiquitous Birthright banner appears on hundreds of tour buses, and the country is used to encountering boisterous American college students on the loose on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on the way to pubs, falafel stands and parties (according to a study by Ernst & Young, BirthBirthright has contributed $1 billion to the Israeli economy).
Even the hip arbitrator of cool, the satiric TV show Eretz Nehederet, good-naturedly skewered the program in 2012 in a segment turned viral that included a John Belushi-based beer guzzler and uber-Zionist cheerleaders who rapturously led rah-rahs for anything Israeli – “Yad Vashem! Yad Vashem!” “Birthright is a given in American Jewish society today. People expect it as a rite of passage, almost like a bar mitzva,” said Elizabeth Sokolsky, vice president of education and operations for Birthright Israel in North America.
“Kids know they’re going to be going on a Birthright trip sometime between 18 and 26 – it’s built into their plans just like going abroad in your junior year.”
While some critics of the program have chosen to focus on the partying and the hook-ups with hunky IDF soldiers, they are just the trivial by-product of energetic young people being let loose in a foreign country. Much less trivial, according to Birthright staffers, is a subtle transformation that takes place in many participants during and sometimes long after their Birthright experience.
According to Birthright’s longtime international CEO Gidi Mark, that process has nothing to do with lofty goals like making aliya or turning every participant into an expert BDS defender on campus.
“What we’re doing in 10 days is instilling a sense of pride and connection to the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” said Mark, a wiry and driven former Foreign Ministry diplomat.
“We create a framework that young people can relate to, and through that, I think we are breaking the pessimistic view of many Jews from 15 years ago when everyone spoke about the threat of Jewish continuity – because we say you can reverse the trend.”
Raviv goes a step further, saying the 10-day trips have espoused a new language for Jewish identity and Jewish and Israel education. Intense and focused, Raviv told a session that, thanks to Birthright, many of the young Jews feel for the first time that they have a meaningful say about the trajectory of Judaism’s future.
“Many of the participants perceive Judaism as something that was superimposed on their own lives – obsolete, irrelevant and not interesting. Birthright offers an opportunity of ownership.
We’re not here to teach them about Judaism or give them answers to probing questions, we’re here to create a safe environment in which to challenge them so they will revisit their preconceived assumptions about Judaism and Israel and start rearticulating those assumptions in a more nuanced and intelligent form.”
As one of the other educators put it during another Atlanta session, most Birthright participants are not coming from the second or third floor in their knowledge of Judaism and Israel, but from deep in the basement. That proclamation is supported by some sobering data recently released by Brandeis University that researcher Dr. Janet Aronson shared at the conference, data showing that applicants to Birthright are woefully ignorant of Israel.
The study called “The Israel Literacy Measurement Project” interviewed over 1,000 Birthright applicants before their trip and discovered that only a little more than half could answer basic questions about Israel like: “Can you identify the name of the Israeli parliament from among the following: (a) The Bet Din (b) The Kotel (c) The Knesset (d) The Shwarma.”
However, the lack of participants’ knowledge hasn’t been something that has ever deterred the Birthright mission and, in fact, is regularly used as ammunition in explaining how vital the program is.
“The belief before Birthright was that you needed to get someone on a trip to Israel by their early teen years – if you didn’t go by then, they were done,” said Aronson. “That’s not true. We’ve shown over and over again in our research that Birthright has made a significant impact on young adults through age 26.”
Outspoken Birthright co-founder Michael Steinhardt put it a little more bluntly.
“I would often say in my usual grumbly way that we’re dealing with a bunch of Jewish ignoramuses… and we were,” said Steinhardt, who was attending an event in New York for alumni of the Birthright Excel internship program just before the Atlanta conference.
“But it didn’t matter that they weren’t well-educated Jews or that they were more American than Jewish. What mattered is that they were open to what Birthright had to offer, and that was clear from moment one.”
‘Bronfman’s blunder’ The notion of providing a free trip to every American Jewish college student emerged from an initiative verbalized for the first time by then-Labor MK Yossi Beilin at the 1994 General Assembly of Jewish Federations held in Denver, Colorado.
According to his blueprint, the Jewish people would sponsor the trip: a third would be paid by the government of Israel, a third by the Jewish federations, and a third by Jewish philanthropy. But it took until 1997 to find allies with deep pockets – Bronfman and Steinhardt – who weren’t encumbered by organizational or government bureaucracy.
“All the naysayers were calling Michael and me crazy,” said a relaxed Bronfman, sitting in a conference room at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta. “There were columns written calling it ‘Steinhardt’s Silliness’ and ‘Bronfman’s Blunder’ – but when that happened, we just laughed because even though it was an experiment, we knew we had a good chance of success.”
Their first hire was Mark, who in 1997 had just finished a stint as the public affairs officer in the Israeli Consulate in New York. On his last day before returning to Israel, he bumped into Beilin, who was by then deputy foreign minister.
“He asked me if I had time for breakfast, and he told me ‘Look, there are two Jewish millionaires, and they’ve bought into my dream of providing a free trip to Israel for every young Jew in America,’” Mark recalled.
“I said, ‘Okay, I’m in.’ And after meeting Bronfman and Steinhardt for a fivehour grilling, I became the marketing director of Birthright.”
Bronfman and Steinhardt poured millions into the project, and Beilin convinced prime minister Ehud Barak to throw in government funds. The first Birthright trip was launched in January 2000, and during that year 2,000 US students between the ages of 18 and 26 got their free 10-day trip to Israel.
“We had 12,000 applicants, so we knew we had struck a chord,” said Bronfman. “But we didn’t know if the trips would be any good. Afterwards, we hired outside researchers who found that the trips were hugely popular and met our objectives for the kids, which were: be happy you’re Jewish, identify with the Jewish people, have an emotionally positive experience with Israel – and have fun.”
Today, Bronfman and Steinhardt still contribute to the organization to reach its soaring budget (2015’s was over $135 million), but are now joined by Sheldon Adelson, who has contributed $250m.
since 2007, the Israeli government, Jewish communities around the world and individual donors and philanthropists via the Birthright Foundation.
Despite the relative leveling of the playing field, Bronfman said that he can’t stay away from being involved in the organization he founded.
“I can’t spurn my child. You see these kids and tears just roll down your cheeks. And I go, ‘Oh my God, what did we start?’” Looking back on the success of the uncharted experiment in venture philanthropy, Steinhardt said that he has never felt the need for vindication against all those who predicted Birthright’s demise, because he realized that he and Bronfman had created something special as soon as he walked onto the first El Al flight full of participants.
“I knew that the spirit I was feeling was somehow different than anything else I had experienced,” he said.
However, just when momentum for the brand and concept was gaining steam after the first couple years, it ran smack into the second intifada, which left the organizers in a quandary – curtail the trips and keep the kids out of harm’s way or continue business as usual in a show of solidarity with Israel.
Bronfman recalled holding a tense conference call with the program’s major donors, in which then-director Shimshon Shoshani explained why the trips should be continued.
“I thought it was crucial to have each person vote separately and give them a chance to speak, and one by one, each one in a strong voice said ‘yes.’ I started to cry, because what we did was take the responsibility off of Shimshon’s shoulders and put them on ours collectively.
I’ll never forget that moment, because I realized then that nothing was going to stop us.”
No strings attached The recruitment of 45,000 participants and the logistics of organizing 1,200 buses crisscrossing Israel and the pedagogical framework that gives it content requires the dedication and discipline usually reserved for a Fortune 500 staff. That’s why the Birthright team resembles less a nonprofit Jewish organization and more a well-oiled hitech start-up.
“It occurred to me then that we are the world’s largest education travel organization,” said CEO Mark. “There are now programs like ours that have been adopted in Ireland, Armenia and Greece. Our secret? A broad and solid vision combined with the art of execution.”
His brain trust includes educational director Raviv and his North American counterpart Sokolsky, as well as international marketing head Noa Bauer. They pore over every detail before, during and after each trip season, whether it’s the number of hours the 14 accredited trip organizers devote to the “geopolitical” situation in Israel – a much-discussed euphemism for “the conflict” – or how many ladles of chicken soup each participant receives on the Friday night Shabbat table.
“We’ve been a game changer in Jewish education because we were the first to develop educational and logistical standards for Israel educational trips,” said Sokolsky. “That includes what are the mandatory sites, how many hours are spent on the Holocaust and how we impart the values and narrative of the Jewish people. And it’s also about providing a balanced message – not rightor left-wing, not religious or secular.”
Even though it’s pitched as a nostrings- attached free trip, Birthright is not always an easy sell, and as more young Jews don’t take part in traditional Jewish educational activities and youth groups, it’s going to become more difficult to locate them. That’s where Bauer comes in.
A former Israel champion in judo who transferred her tenacity to the consumer product world, Bauer was recruited to Birthright to find those lost Jews and bring them in. Or as Mark said, “we are going to the dark side of the moon and looking for Jews and igniting their DNA.”
In one of the Atlanta sessions, Bauer reeled off factoids as she explained that the innovative marketing tools available are needed to reach the social media- addicted millennials – a far different task than reaching prior generations.
“Our target audience is on Snapchat – they’re interested in sharing their lives, sharing their brand and building up their brand,” she said, adding that their average attention span is 8.25 seconds (“compared to a goldfish, which is 12 seconds”).
Working to their advantage, Bauer explained that 95% of millennials receive information via their friends on social media, and that the countless Instagram postings of riding camels and floating in the Dead Sea feed into the #DIFTP credo (Do it for the photo).
“It creates that fear of missing out on something that’s fun, and we use that to get as many Jewish young adults to Israel as possible on the bus. When you get out of the bigger Jewish circles, you have to reach out to the unaffiliated and the unidentified.”
Through a highly effective system of paid peer recruitment, campus organizers and new media, Birthright, Bauer thinks, has found the strategy to stocking the next Birthright generation.
“Participants are the next recruiters.
They know the product is good and they’re the ones spreading the word with their selfies and their quotes. If you go to Instagram and type in #birthright- Israel, you’ll find hundreds of thousands of photos.”
The question remains, however, whether Masada sunrise selfies and a newfound predilection for falafel translates into long-lasting concrete changes in a young person’s attitude toward their Judaism and toward Israel. According to Mark, the answer is a no-brainer.
“I don’t judge the input, I judge the outcome, and there’s nothing like the outcome of a Birthright trip compared to the investment,” the Birthright CEO said.
“With only a 10-day trip, we are cutting the assimilation level by half. Even more importantly, look at children of intermarried parents, who account for about 50% of the Jewish children in the world today. Their rate of marriage with Jews is about 22%, but if they went on Birthright, it’s 55% – it’s more than doubling the possibility that children of intermarried couples come back to their Jewish family.”
During the conference, handpicked Birthright alumni were trotted out to reinforce that point and present the shining success stories of coming from little or no Jewish background to becoming active members of their community, turning into vocal Israel supporters and even making aliya.
But the more pedestrian, probably more representative portrait of a Birthright graduate can be seen through Jon, a 32-year-old transportation planner in Washington, DC. He was raised in a nonreligious home by his Jewish mother and Christian father, and went on a Birthright trip in 2004 while an undergrad at Macalester College in Minnesota.
“The thing I’ll never forget was at the very beginning they told us about the history of Israel and Theodor Herzl. And they said, ‘Welcome home.’ That was the first time in my life I had ever felt like I had a culture, and that I belonged to something larger than my personal relationships with friends and family,” he said.
“Before that, I thought of Judaism as a religion that one half of my family practiced.
I thought of it almost as an activity.
That trip made me feel like it was something in my blood – something I should feel proud of.”
Despite his experience, Jon married a non-Jewish woman. They light a hanukkia on Hanukka and he expects that being Jewish will always be some part of his identity because of his Birthright experience.
“I feel like I’ll educate my kids so that they know Judaism is in their family, and that it’s an option for them if they want to have some formal religion in their life,” he concluded.
Raviv, Birthright’s educational director, has no problem with outcomes like that, saying it doesn’t contradict the aims of the program.
“Birthright is not here to ensure the survival of the Jewish people, I want to be clear about that,” he said. “We are here to celebrate a thriving Jewish community that is proud to be Jewish, not because of external threats to Jewish life like anti-Semitism or assimilation but because of internal pride of Jewish values and ideas.”
A transformational experience After two days bursting with data, brainstorming sessions, speeches and information presented on subjects like the success of the niche programs Birthright offers – including physical disabilities and trips for participants with Asperger’s syndrome – and the proliferation of the Mifgash (Encounter) segments of the trip, in which upward of 8,000 IDF soldiers join the bus for a five or 10-day period, heads were spinning.
That was the perfect time for the attendees to convene in the main ballroom to hear from Rachel Cohen, a millennial philanthropy expert and the co-founder of the Nexus Global Youth Summit, an international network of young philanthropists from over 70 countries.
The outgoing and charming Cohen is also a Birthright alumna from the inaugural program in 2000, and has since returned on four more trips as a tour leader. Earlier this year, she joined the Birthright Foundation board – she is the organization’s Mariano Rivera, the closer who comes in to seal the deal.
With the timing of a stand-up comic and the verve of a motivational speaker, she recounted growing up in a Christian home in New Jersey with a Jewish father who had no connection to his heritage.
“I heard something about ‘winter break trip – blah blah blah – free’ and my ears perked up,” she said to growing laughter from the audience.
“I filled out the application for something called Birthright 2000 [the organization’s original name] and went to a meeting, and I was asked, ‘Rachel, why do you want to go to Israel?’ I said, ‘I don’t – where else do you go?’” More laughter and guffaws.
The speech took on a more serious tone as Cohen described her visit to Israel as “a transformational experience.”
“At first, I was a fish out of water, I didn’t know anything Jewish or anything about Israel. I felt like an imposter,” she said, adding that she chose to stick it out and treat the 10 days not as a free trip but as a gift – “the gift to explore my Jewish identity.”
“Birthright began a long list of firsts for me – the first time I ate falafel, celebrated Shabbat, dated a Jewish boy [whom she later married], and seven years ago we had our first Passover Seder with my family, the Cohens.
“My little brother and sister went on Birthright after me, and my father, after being disconnected from his Judaism for 35 years, bought High Holy Day tickets for the first time this year – he said if it’s something his children feel so proud of, then it must be somewhere inside of him, too.”
With her voice breaking, she continued: “I’m Jewish because of Birthright.
What you sparked in me with your gift has dividends everywhere. It’s not a philanthropic gift that ends in a trip to Israel – it’s actually a gift that makes the beginning of someone’s Jewish journey.
“I would never be proud to be a Cohen if it were not for you, who went out to find a lost sheep like me and brought me back to my people and my home.”
Cohen has probably given this speech a hundred times, but it didn’t matter.
Tears were streaming down faces around the room, including those of some usually crusty Israelis. It was no match – Cohen had shut them down one-twothree, and in the process opened up their hearts and checkbooks.
A few hours later on the way back from the conference’s closing gala banquet, Brad was deep in conversation on the bus with some board members and senior staff.
“There has to be some way to get more people to give – they have to realize how important this is,” he said, and they began to throw out names of colleagues and friends to approach.
Late that night, he and a couple other Birthright movers and shakers were hunkered down in the hotel lounge with legal pads, intent on the quest to bring the next 500,000 Rachel Cohens to Israel.
The writer was a guest of Birthright.