Birthright faces new challenges

JERUSALEM, Jan. 15 (JTA) — Birthright Israel, the splashy and ambitious international partnership to bring young people on identity-strengthening Israel trips, has had to prove itself quite a few times.

When Birthright was first announced, many Jewish leaders suggested the money pledged to the program could be better spent on things like day schools, questioned the value of a 10-day trip to Israel and wondered whether participants would take seriously something that was free.

However, as the first wave of participants returned last winter gushing about their “life-changing” experiences, and a Brandeis study found a powerful short-term impact on Jewish identity, Birthright’s skeptics were largely won over. Jewish federations, the Israeli government and 14 individual donors pledged large sums of money, bringing the program’s total 5-year budget to almost $210 million.

Still, with a host of new challenges on the horizon, Birthright — known as Taglit, or “Discovery,” in Hebrew — will have a lot more proving to do. The following issues will be closely watched in coming months and years:

• Future financial viability. Philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, Birthright’s founders, announced recently that they will end their support for the project in five years, expecting that new donors and institutions will step in. Funding from Birthright’s other major partners — Jewish federations and the Israeli government — is by no means guaranteed indefinitely.

• How many trip providers should be used, and to what extent Birthright should offer a consistent experience regardless of provider. Last year, 10 programs provided trips under Birthright auspices. This winter, 30 programs are running trips, and their policies and goals vary. Birthright leaders say they are closely monitoring for “quality control” and are using the current batch of trips to test which programs to use in the long term.

• Follow-up engagement. Birthright and the federation system began providing grants for post-trip programs this year. Several trip providers, like Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, have invested considerable personnel to stay in contact with alumni and encourage them to continue the “Jewish journeys” spurred by Birthright. It remains to be seen whether alumni will receive as much attention as Birthright grows.

• The trip’s long-term impact. With Birthright still in its infancy, all pronouncements about its long-term effects on Jewish life are speculation. However, Birthright plans to continue commissioning detailed studies from Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Jewish Studies, and is exploring the possibility of longitudinal studies that compare Birthright participants to other young Jews.

While many people believe Hillel and Birthright are synonymous, Hillel — the network of Jewish student organizations — is simply the largest of some 30 trip providers. The providers include both nonprofit and for-profit, Israeli and North American, secular and Orthodox groups. Their policies and approaches vary widely, from Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox outreach group, to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

Although all providers must adhere to certain guidelines, particularly about security, providers have differing alcohol policies, rules and tones. In the past week, while participants in a Jewish Community Centers Association trip watched the raunchy teen comedy movie “American Pie” on the bus ride home from the Dead Sea, male and female participants on Mayanot — the Lubavitch program — were forbidden from dancing together at group events.

With Israel and the Palestinian territories rocked by violence this winter, many wondered whether Birthright would be able to operate. In the end, despite thousands of dropouts, mostly from the United States, Birthright is bringing more young people than last year: between 8,000 and 9,000, of whom 6,000 are American.

This year’s participants have been guinea pigs to some extent, and Birthright officials say they have brought in outside evaluators — the Cohen center and Israeli researchers — to determine which providers to keep in the future and which to toss out.

“Based on the evaluations, next year we’ll weed out the worst ones,” says Gideon Mark, Birthright’s director of marketing and development.

Providers, who are uncertain about their future with Birthright, have been doing a fair amount of carping. The North American groups — particularly Hillel and Chabad, which have a presence on most major university campuses — are asking whether the Israeli providers can offer meaningful follow-up.

In the process, questions are being raised about Birthright’s basic goal: Is it to promote a love of Israel, a commitment to Jewish observance or something else? How much of the trip should be structured and educational, and how much allowed for personal reflection and relaxation?

At the same time, as many providers report staff and overhead expenses beyond the funds allocated by Birthright, groups like Hillel are wondering whether it makes sense to continue in the Birthright business or instead seek to position themselves as follow-up providers.

The Hillel trips are credited with building a sense of community, and forging relationships between Hillel staff and students that later are developed on campus. But they also drain resources from Hillel’s other work.

“I want to make sure I’m not leading my movement down a siren’s path to something that seems right, but in the long term isn’t right,” Richard Joel, Hillel’s president, said in a recent interview with JTA.

Although Hillel has no plans to drop its involvement in Birthright, Joel said he wants to evaluate the issue more closely.

“We have limited resources and are spreading them very thin by devoting so much to Birthright,” he said. “I need something more than my own kishkes telling me there’s a quantum added value by our institution being involved as the primary organizing force.”

Julie Wiener recently traveled to Israel on a trip paid for by Birthright Israel.

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