Push is on for more birthright funding

Participants in the birthright israel program celebrate as they land in Israel in July 2004. (birthright israel)

Participants in the birthright israel program celebrate as they land in Israel in July 2004. (birthright israel)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Major philanthropists behind birthright israel are pressuring the United Jewish Communities and the federation system to contribute more funding to the program.

When the initiative to send Jewish young adults on free 10-day trips to Israel was launched in 2000, private philanthropists, the government of Israel and the federation system agreed to share the costs equally. But this year, with the budget for birthright hitting $80.6 million, the federations thus far have contributed only $5.5 million.

“I don’t think there has been an honest-to-God buy-in,” said Charles Bronfman, who founded birthright with fellow philanthropist Michael Steinhardt.

In an unprecedented step to cull more money from the UJC system, Bronfman’s foundation is setting aside about $1.5 million for local Jewish federations to hire full-time development professionals to raise money for birthright. In addition, the UJC and birthright are discussing the creation of an endowment fund of up to $500 million to fund birthright on a continuous basis.

Bronfman has written a scathing opinion essay deriding the UJC for contributing less than 1 percent of its budget to birthright. He and the other private philanthropists who back birthright say that without more money from the federation system, a program that is widely seen as the most successful Jewish continuity effort cannot keep up with demand.

For federations, said Eric Levine, the UJC’s senior vice president for Jewish peoplehood and identity, the situation is not so simple.

“In all honesty, everyone wants to fund birthright to a greater extent,” he said.

Federations, however, are multi-issue organizations, and their fund-raising totals are increasing incrementally, he said.

“The fact is that we don’t want to pull money from a poor person’s mouth to pay for a free trip to Israel,” Levine said.

To a large degree, the funding crunch is a product of birthright’s success. The program was only expected to last five years, but now with participation skyrocketing the plan is to keep it running indefinitely – and at higher levels. The result for many federations is greater-than-expected financial demands.

In 2000, 9,462 Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 took the free trips. This year, nearly 36,000 from around the world, mostly North America, are expected to participate, with thousands more on the waiting list.

Birthright has cost $314 million over the past eight years. Private philanthropists have contributed $147 million and the Israeli government $75 million. The federation system, birthright sources say, has contributed about $43 million. Additional funding comes from other sources, including the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has pledged $60 million over the next two years to pay for the tens of thousands of Jews on the waiting list. Yet with the program receiving 2,000 applicants a day and typically having to close registration only a few weeks after it opens, birthright officials say more money will probably be needed.

Each trip to Israel costs about $2,000, according to birthright’s director of international marketing, Gideon Mark. The federations’ contribution per trip contribution in 2007 will be approximately $175, according to Jay Golan, the executive director of the birthright israel Foundation, which oversees private funding for the program.

Adding to the frustration of birthright supporters is that most federations use the travel program in their fund-raising pitches.

Sources familiar with the situation say the UJC is having trouble convincing federations to contribute more money.

Using a pre-existing formula employed for other shared costs, the UJC suggests to each individual federation how much it should contribute to birthright. Levine, whose division oversees the UJC’s birthright operation, described the suggested number as the product of a “push-pull” between the UJC and the federations in which they arrive at a figure together. Still, except for one year, federations have fallen short. In 2006, for example, federations donated 84 percent of the suggested total.

For 2007, the UJC requested $9 million from the federations, an increase of 50 percent from last year; so far it has collected $5.5 million.

Levine noted that in addition to these funds, the UJC provides the Jewish Agency for Israel with its core budget; in turn, from that amount, the Jewish Agency gives about $5 million per year to birthright.

As part of an initiative dubbed “Building the birthright israel Brand” or B-3, the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies has allocated seven grants between $75,000 and $125,000 to local federations to hire development professionals to market birthright and raise money for the program.

Though the B-3 hires are employees of the federations for which they work, Bronfman’s foundation will keep close tabs on them, set benchmarks and offer periodic training seminars. The goal is to secure five- and six-figure gifts from a market that is largely untapped, according to Jason Soloway, the foundation’s director of special projects.

Two federations in New Jersey, three in California and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston have signed onto the program.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has used grants from Bronfman’s foundation to hire two part-time fund-raisers to solicit financial support for birthright. Its annual contribution to the program – set in conjunction with UJC – has jumped from $90,000 in 2000 to $550,000 this year.

Still, even with the increases, the Los Angeles federation is paying only about $458 for each of the 1,200 annual birthright participants from the area.

John Fishel, president of the Los Angeles federation, said local communities could find ways to fund both their poverty-fighting programs and birthright.

“We feel a commitment to take care of the needy in our community,” he said, “but that doesn’t negate supporting birthright and a range of other Israel experiences.”

In addition to the funding for individual federations, Bronfman’s foundation also has allocated $100,000 to the UJC for the next two years to hire a birthright development professional and has provided grants to the birthright israel Foundation to hire one professional to cover New York and the southern United States.

In the first year, Bronfman’s foundation would like to see a 2-to-1 return on its investment. Then it would like to see fund raising for birthright ramped up at the participating federations, according to Soloway.

“The original idea behind birthright is that this would be a three-way partnership between the philanthropists, the State of Israel and the federation system with the Jewish Agency,” he said. “The philanthropists have done a remarkable job. The government has done a remarkable job – though it did have one off year – and the federation has done a decent job, but it hasn’t met the expectations of the original partnership. This is about helping the federation system increase its participation in birthright israel.”

“We’re trying to do just that,” a UJC spokesman said. “We are.”

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