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Birthright cries poverty; Steinhardt says it is no ploy

Birthright Israel has become the latest of the Israel-oriented organizations to cry poverty because of the falling dollar, the Jerusalem Post reported Monday.

Since 2000, the program has taken some 200,000 Jews between the ages of 18-25 on free trips to Israel. With the dollar worth about 30 percent less against the shekel than it was a year ago, and the cost of energy and programing in Israel on the rise, Birthright will be forced to bring about 2,000 fewer kids this winter than expected, according to the Post.

Birthright is perhaps the least likely Jewish organization to face this problem. Widely considered the most successful Jewish project of this generation, it is also the best funded, backed by the mega-names in Jewish mega-philanthropy, from Sheldon Adelson to Charles Bronfman to Michael Steinhardt to Lynn Schusterman to the Jim Joseph Foundation to Daniel Och.

They make up about 60 percent of Birthright’s budget, with the rest coming from the government of Israel, the United Jewish Communities and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Since 2000, private philanthropists have contributed $147 million and the Israeli government $75 million. The federation system, birthright sources say, has contributed about $43 million.

No judgments here, but it’s a fair bet to say that no matter what the economic situation right now those names should easily be able to make up any shortfall.

Still, throughout the years – and especially recently – the private philanthropists have been pressing the Israeli government and the federations to pitch in more money toward the program, with Charles Bronfman publicly calling them out several times in recent years.

At first glance, the story in the Post seems like yet another attempt to do so by whomever leaked the information.

Steinhardt, who got Birthright off the ground with Bronfman, told the Fundermentalist that he doesn’t know if one of his mega-funder buddies was the source for the story.

“I don’t know what the source of the story is,” he said Monday afternoon.

Steinhardt insisted that talk of a Birthright budget crunch was not a ploy, saying that several factors came into play in terms of the program’sneed for more money. “It is true that the airline cost is really difficult this year because El Al is charging a lot more,” he said. “And because Israeli tourism has been so successful, the hotels have really increased their prices.”

The call for increased dollars, Steinhardt said, is directed across the board – not just at the Israeli government and the federation system. Specifically, he added, Birthright needs more private philanthropists involved.

“I have pushed the Jewish Agency for a long time to step up. And it is not secret that I am not a friend of theirs,” he said. “My hope of their stepping up is gone. I still have a faint hope of getting more money from the federations. But the major source of funds are firstly the philanthropists and secondly the government. We really need to make an effort to seek more philanthropic involvement.”

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