Op-Ed: Growing Birthright Israel should be a no-brainer

LAS VEGAS (JTA) — The recently released study of the impact of Birthright Israel trips should be very welcome news for the Jewish people.

Ever since the release of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, experts have been seeking ways to maximize Jewish continuity. Quite simply, this new study, conducted by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, shows that the Birthright Israel program represents a truly effective way to change the course of Jewish history.

Now that we have this research, increasing the number of Birthright Israel participants should become a top priority of Jewish philanthropy.

We cannot take credit for coming up with the idea for Birthright Israel, which offers a free 10-day trip to Israel for Jews ages 18 to 26; that distinction goes to Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman. Despite opposition from many skeptics, these visionary philanthropists persisted in making their creative idea a reality starting in 2000.

When we were approached to support Birthright Israel at the end of 2006, it appeared to us to be a transformative program based on the anecdotal evidence we heard.

Now there is research that validates our impression: The Birthright Israel experience significantly increases participants’ connections to Israel and the Jewish people, rates of in-marriage and the value placed on raising Jewish children, among other desirable outcomes.

In the past three years, our family has been privileged to help Birthright Israel demonstrate the scalability of this remarkable program by committing more than $90 million to increase the number of participants.

Last year more than 40,000 young adults went on Birthright Israel trips. If the program can achieve that rate for several years, we will come close to reaching a majority of young Jews.

This becomes a real tipping point that can transform an entire generation. With so many demographic and geopolitical forces arrayed against our people and the Jewish state, increasing the number of Birthright Israel participants should be a no-brainer.

By no means are we understating the importance of other formal and informal means of promoting Jewish continuity. But in Birthright Israel we have a proven product that can be targeted at young adults who are the least affiliated with our community and constitute a rapidly growing segment of the Jewish population. Birthright Israel can provide effective “booster shots” for Jewish continuity for less than $3,000 per person.

Maintaining a level of 40,000 participants per year will be an enormous challenge. It means a budget of more than $100 million per year. To date, the program has benefited from very generous support from the government of Israel, and we hope that support will continue to grow.

The benefits to Israel are clear — most of the Birthright Israel dollars are spent there. Even more important, however, is a strengthening of Israel’s base of support in the Diaspora, not to mention the Birthright alumni who make aliyah.

Federations, foundations and individual philanthropists also have played an important role in the program’s growth, but it is time to significantly expand the number of players and ramp up the level of support.

The recently released study confirms the tremendous potential of Birthright Israel as a proven and simple way to use our charitable dollars to strengthen the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

We hope you will join us by putting this extraordinary program at the top of your charitable list, and together we can literally change the course of Jewish history.

(Dr. Miriam Adelson is an Israeli-born physician who works in the field of drug addiction. Sheldon Adelson, her husband, is chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands, Inc.)

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