Birthright Israel experiencing labor pains

NEW YORK, Nov. 16 (JTA) — The Greek goddess Athena sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus, but Birthright Israel, the brainchild of two Jewish philanthropists announced with a flourish last November, is being created according to a more mortal trajectory.

A year ago in Jerusalem, Seagram Company executive Charles Bronfman announced the plan he and Wall Street mogul Michael Steinhardt had hatched to make a trip to Israel as commonplace as the Bar and Bat Mitzvah in Diaspora Jewish life.

The announcement came during the annual General Assembly of North America’s umbrella fund-raising and social service organization, a group now known as the United Jewish Communities.

Bronfman is currently the chairman of UJC’s board.

At this year’s G.A., as the annual meeting is known, taking place this week in Atlanta, Birthright Israel was sure to be a topic discussed in conference rooms and hallways by delegates from the UJC’s more than 189 constituent Jewish federations and independent communities.

Although widely hailed as a bold, new initiative, the exact details of how the program will run and with whose input is complicating what at first seemed a simple scheme.

The initiative — which aims to cover the cost of 10 days of educational programming on a first trip to Israel for Jews aged 15 to 26 — was originally envisioned as a three-way $300 million partnership of Jewish philanthropists, the Israeli government and Jewish communities around the world.

The effort was meant to enhance Jewish identity at a time when the community as whole is concerned about the future connection of Jewish youth.

So far several philanthropists have put their financial heft behind the idea, and the Israeli government under Ehud Barak has promised $70 million over five years, fulfilling most of the $100 million pledge made by the former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

But to date, the UJC and local federations have yet to sign on to match the other partners’ commitments and to link their existing Israel trips for teen- agers and young adults with the ambitious plan.

The first wave of trips, for 6,000 college students, are scheduled to begin in December, although future trips for college and high school students are still under development.

For the past few months, representatives of Birthright Israel North America, the international organization’s New York-based franchise, have been crisscrossing the continent to find out what federations want and expect.

“Long before we get to the point of solidifying our thinking, we want to do a reality check with federations to see how we can make this work best for them,” said Mark Charendoff, vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.

Charendoff, who represents the Bronfman foundations’ interests in Birthright Israel, said, “Initially when we spoke to federations a year ago, there was some skepticism about whether they should be involved.”

With the first trips selling out within weeks and the Israeli government making a clear show of its support, the tone among federations has changed, Charendoff said, “to ‘how do we make this work’ rather than ‘whether we make this work.’ “

Representatives of Birthright Israel North America declined to comment in detail about current discussions with federations, except to say that “discussions are ongoing.”

In North America, the challenge may boil down to making room at the table for federations to contribute to the program’s evolution.

“You cannot have a national program without the federations being partners in it,” said Marvin Lender, a former United Jewish Appeal chairman from New Haven, who is also vice chair of the board of Birthright Israel North America.

The reasons for federations’ reluctance to embrace the program without reservation are manifold and vary from community to community.

Most federations already sponsor and subsidize trips to Israel and are reluctant to alter or abandon their time-tested programs.

“We’re satisfied with it, we want to expand it and we want Birthright Israel to help us implement what we’re already doing,” Robert Aronson, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, said, summing up a common federation position.

The bottom line, he said, was that “there has to be an ongoing dialogue with federations to figure out how to do this right.”

Birthright Israel’s initial announcement last year was sprung without much preparation, leaving the community groups smarting and confused.

“There were some communications issues” and a need for more consultation up front, “but that’s the past,” said Max Kleinman, the executive vice president of New Jersey’s United Jewish Federation of Metro West.

Kleinman, like many of his colleagues, expressed support for the Birthright Israel initiative as a whole, but voiced a common concern: that there be appropriate follow-up programming, “so it’s not a one-shot deal.”

Some federation officials questioned whether Israel should be involved in subsidizing Jewish identity-building programs for Diaspora youth.

“My personal concern is the Israeli government’s providing money” for the trips at a time when its resources could be spent on Israeli children’s education, said Stephen Hoffman, the executive vice president of the Cleveland federation.

Other issues raised by federation executives who participated in the recent discussions included whether the trips should focus on high school- or college-aged students and whether 10 days was enough to form the basis of a meaningful connection to Israel.

Moreover, federations now running their own Israel experience programs do not want their efforts and successes to be superceded by a global structure.

Boston, as well as Washington and Los Angeles, among other federations, have successful savings incentive programs that encourage long- term engagement with Jewish institutions and the idea of going to Israel. The professional leaders of all three federations also expressed the importance of partnering with synagogues and other community organizations in creating Israel experiences with lasting effects.

“We’re concerned that Birthright Israel should supplement what we do. It shouldn’t be competitive,” said John Fishel, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Barry Shrage, the president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, said, “It’s not going to be the giant monolithic thing they thought.

“Somehow or other,” he added, “we believe that we can find a way to individualize it and personalize” the global initiative.

But no one interviewed by JTA expressed any doubt about the benefits of a national program on the scale planned for Birthright Israel.

The biggest thing it brings to the field, said Jacob Solomon, the executive vice president at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, “is a broad vision, a national and international vision to create a climate that makes our job of recruiting young adults and teens easier.”

The sold-out success of the college trips bodes well for demand, many people believe, and Hoffman of Cleveland believes in the savvy of Birthright Israel’s marketing campaign.

Attracting kids is the key, Hoffman said. If Birthright can “help us understand the market, then we’re all for that.”

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