Birthright slams Masa for wasteful duplication of efforts

"We might have to start our own long-term trips."

Taglit-birthright israel officials are threatening to start their own long-term Israel experience program in place of the Jewish Agency's Masa project following a rupture in discussions over a possible unification of the two organizations. "We might have to start our own second trips. We can't play a game based on principles we can't accept," said Charles Bronfman, one of the major funders of birthright, which in 1999 began bringing 18- to 26-year-old Jews on free 10-day trips to Israel. He and other leading forces in the organization slammed the Jewish Agency - which also helps fund birthright - for launching Masa without prior consultation and basing it on what they consider a flawed business model. Masa was unveiled in 2004 and subsidizes semester- and year-long Israel programs. "Masa I find to be extremely unfortunate," Bronfman declared. "Why does somebody who's supposed to be our partner come along and suddenly institute a huge bureaucracy?" "They had been working on this for over two years and none of us knew anything about it," said Lynn Schusterman, another birthright donor, of Masa. "I didn't trust them to begin with, and now I don't trust them at all." Birthright planners insisted that coordinated cooperation would have allowed for the pooling of resources and successful building of a follow-up program - perhaps as a spin-off brand - rather than one that competes for the same monies at a time when birthright itself isn't fully funded. This year, 22,000 participants are expected to come on birthright, though the organization estimated that it could double that number - based on the length of its waiting list - if it came up with additional funds. To bring just an additional 7,000, as birthright hopes to do next year, would mean an extra $12 million. Birthright currently receives around $20m. from philanthropists, another $20m. from the Israeli government, up to $7m. from the United Jewish Communities and $5m. from the Jewish Agency. Masa, which had 8,000 people come this year, also gets funds from the Jewish Agency, the United Jewish Communities and Keren Hayesod to match government allocations, which began with $10m. for 2005 and is slated to grow by $10m. annually. Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski acknowledged that he was aware of the criticisms that birthright has levelled at Masa but dismissed the suggestion that birthright is hurt by Masa. "I meet with Charles Bronfman on a constant basis. I think both he and his friends that initiated birthright made a huge contribution to the State of Israel and the Jewish cause," he said. "We are planning to find every possible way to cooperate, that more people will come on birthright - and by the way the Jewish Agency is one of the major contributors to birthright, from the first day - and to see that more people come on Masa. It's two different programs but in a way they complement each other." Bielski also took issue with the notion that Masa has created an enormous bureaucracy, which means it runs less efficiently than birthright: "We are seeing to it that the overhead won't be more than at a similar organization." At the same time, Masa has had some difficulties in providing the funds it promised to participants this year. "We do have issues to deal with," Elan Ezrachi, executive director of Masa, told The Jerusalem Post in May following reports that many students still hadn't received their scholarships. "This is a complex endeavor. There are thousands of Masa participants from all over the world. Because the population we are dealing with is spread out all over the world, Masa does not interface directly with the students but rather with the individual organizations and institutions acting as brokers. In the few cases where participants did not yet receive funds, it was solely because of a slow bureaucratic process." Birthright officials indicated that they would like to see discussions resumed. "I would hope that we have a merger with Masa," Bronfman said. Bielski also said he would like to see the two groups collaborate but stopped short of using the word merger. "I can't see a reason why we won't cooperate on bringing young people to Israel. We must look for all the possible ways that will bring efficiency and more people to Israel. And I will investigate, I will uncover every rock to try to get to this cooperation," he said.