NEW YORK (JTA) — Birthright Israel is hinging a major fund-raising push on a new study that says the program, which sends young Jews on free 10-day trips to Israel, has a major impact on Jewish continuity.
The study, released Monday by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, found that those who participated on Birthright trips are more likely to have stronger connections to Israel, raise their children as Jews and belong to a synagogue than their peers who have not made a Birthright trip.
Titled "Generation Birthright Israel: The Impact of an Israel Experience on Jewish Identity and Choices," the study is based on interviews with some 1,200 young people who applied for Birthright trips between 2001 and 2004 — two-thirds of whom went on the trips, the rest whose applications were denied. The survey compared the answers of the two groups.
Of the 500 or so interviewed who are now married, 72 percent who made the trip married Jews, while 46 percent of those who did not married Jews. This means that Birthright participants were 57 percent more likely to marry within the faith, according to Len Saxe, the head of the Cohen Center and the researcher who oversaw the survey.
When the study’s results were presented publicly on Monday at a Brandeis-owned building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the head of the Boston federation hailed Birthright as the only successful recent big idea in the Jewish community.
“People are looking for the next big thing; we ain’t finding no other big thing at this level,” said Barry Shrage, the CEO of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston.
North American Jewish federations are partners in Birthright with the Israeli government and the private philanthropists who fund the majority of the project.
One requisite for launching the program in 1999 was that it incorporate rigorous controls to gauge if it was working; the study is part of that effort.
Although Birthright paid for the study, Saxe said that as a tenured professor at Brandeis, he felt no pressure to find certain results to placate his funders. The Cohen Center that Saxe heads also houses the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, funded by Michael Steinhardt, one of the philanthropists who gives to Birthright.
Saxe and Birthright officials acknowledge that there is a great deal of fund raising that hinges on his study’s findings.
A number of Birthright’s private benefactors were in attendance Monday, among them Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, who are credited with founding the program, as well as Lynn Schusterman and Michael Bohnen, who runs the foundation of Birthright’s largest funder, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.
Immediately after Saxe had presented his findings, Steinhardt, Bronfman and Schusterman stood in a Q&A session and made a pitch for more money from more people based on Saxe’s results.
“I think this is a great report,” Bronfman said. “Thirty years ago we started hearing about the importance of informal Jewish education, and nothing happened. Then about continuity, and nothing happened. Then Birthright comes along and change happened.”
Steinhardt took a dig at the Jewish organizational establishment as he pointed to the report as evidence of Birthright’s success.
Birthright “was overwhelmingly disliked by the midstream and by the institutional Jewish world,” Steinhardt said. “Jews around the world should be appalled by the level of education in the non-Orthodox Jewish world. It has to be very different, and I don’t hear anything different today. You ask about the impact of Jewish philanthropy — well, the impact has been ‘gornisht.’
"This study is important because we have changed the Jewish world. Birthright and what we did — it created change.”
The Birthright Israel Foundation, which oversees the approximately $80 million in private money that will flow into the project this year, is now seeking more money from smaller donors, and specifically from the federation system.
Birthright is still one of the best-funded Jewish philanthropic endeavors, but its budget has fallen in the past year. Birthright received a huge boost with $70 million in gifts from Adelson in 2007 and 2008, giving it a budget of $80 million in 2007 and $100 million in 2008. In 2009, the budget fell back to $80 million. The group expects a similar budget for 2010.
Birthright is attempting to make up for the drop in funding from Adelson and to bring enough new money to grow the program so that by 2016, Birthright can offer 51 percent of all Jews aged 18 to 26 a free trip to Israel at some point.
Birthright says it is now reaching about 25 percent of that age cohort.
“Our job No.1 is don’t leave 20,000 kids on the ground each year,” Shrage said of those who cannot go because spots on Birthright trips are limited. “How can federations look themselves in the eye? These kids aren’t coming back. This is our shot. This study gives us the tool to do that.
"If we act now, we are blessed. If not, it is another example of our failing.”