Weak dollar forces cuts in Taglit-Birthright program

Weak dollar may force program to cut 2,000 participants.

Taglit 2007 224.88 (photo credit: )
Taglit 2007 224.88
(photo credit: )
Taglit-Birthright Israel is poised to turn away more than 2,000 students this coming winter due to budgetary pressures resulting from the continued plunge in the dollar-shekel exchange rate and a rise in energy and programming prices. Tens of thousands of students go to Israel for free on Taglit-Birthright trips every year, but the number of participants may be reduced due to the slumping dollar, Taglit-Birthright Israel CEO Shimshonn Shoshani told The Jerusalem Post. The dollar amount in donations had stayed consistent, added Shoshani, but the value in shekel terms had dropped significantly, while at the same time a 15 percent rise in energy and programming prices means that this winter, fewer students will make the trip if more funds don't come in. Last winter, 17,000 students visited Israel through the organization compared to 15,000 expected this winter semester starting in December. This year, a record number of 42,000 are expected to come to Israel through Birthright. In the first half of year the dollar has depreciated about 20% against the shekel, following a 9.3% drop in 2007. "The flights, the hotels, the bus, security people, everything went up," said Shoshani. "So the dollar is down and the costs went up. That's the story." Between 2006 and 2007, per-person spending only increased by $42, but Birthright expects to spend $300 more per participant in 2008. Birthright, which has provided free organized trips to Israel for 200,000 Diaspora Jews since 2000, relies on a few wealthy donors for 60% of its funding. The Israeli government, the Jewish Agency and United Jewish Communities make up the rest, said Shoshani. Big donors contributed $12 million in new funds for this summer to decrease the notoriously long wait list and allow for record participation. But while donors have made up their share, it is unclear whether Israeli and American organizations will be able to increase theirs. Many of them aren't discussing budget allocations yet. The Jewish Agency, for instance, which allocated $5m. for Birthright this year, isn't yet ready to discuss its budget for 2009. Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz said the crumbling dollar is a problem they are seeing across the board with programs the agency helps fund. The agency's $342m. budget itself comes from Jewish organizations worldwide. "It's not a unique phenomenon," said Jankelowitz. "It's all international Jewish organizations whose budgets are set in dollars." For some time now, Birthright administrators have been receiving complaints that funding per participant wasn't enough to provide 10 days of amenities and quality programming. Moving forward, Birthright will be giving more per person to make up for rising prices. "To keep our high educational standards and logistical standards, we had to increase our allocation per capita," said Shoshani. Other programs which send students to Israel have been burned even worse. Aish Jerusalem Fellowships, which provides heavily subsidized, religious-themed trips to Israel, had to cut its program from 3,600 participants last year to around 2,500 this year, said Chanan Kaufman, the organization's executive director. "For the first time in my career, I turned away students," said Kaufman. "It was terrible." Money for these programs is raised in dollars and spent in shekels, and it's just a reality that Israel programs would have to face in the global economy, said Shoshani.