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Birthright Israel’s Summer Program Reduced Due to Funding Problems

January 27, 2004
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Birthright israel is slashing the number of participants on its summer trips this year because of funding problems.

Some 3,500 participants, all but 500 of whom will come from North America, is all "we can manage in light of all the uncertainties," Michael Steinhardt, a key birthright israel benefactor, told JTA.

This winter, birthright israel took more than 10,000 youths to Israel, including 8,000 from North America.

Now in the last of its five pilot years, the free trip to Israel for 18-to 26-year olds has taken about 60,000 Diaspora youths to the Jewish state.

The future of the program — hailed as a revolutionary way to strengthen Jewish identity among Diaspora youths, giving many of its participants Zionist ideals and Jewish values — is uncertain.

"We hold out as a serious option closing down the program," Steinhardt said.

When the program began, Jewish communities worldwide — largely the North American Jewish federation system — the Israeli government and a group of 14 philanthropists had agreed to divide evenly the funding for the $210 million, five-year program.

But some of those sponsors have fallen short on their funding responsibilities.

Nevertheless, there still is optimism about birthright’s future.

"There is a sufficient number of influential people on all sides of this project," said Sandy Cardin, executive director of the Schusterman Family Foundation, which helps fund the program. Those include the government of Israel, the federation system, and philanthropists who "recognize the importance of this program and the tremendous impact it’s having on Jewish life and are committed to finding a way to make sure this is continued."

Ironically, the program’s move to limit participation comes as increasing numbers of youth, including those in North America, are expressing interest in visiting Israel.

In addition to the 10,000 that traveled to Israel on birthright this winter, the program turned away several thousand more who were eligible, according to birthright officials.

Israel programs in general have seen increasing enrollment from abroad as people have grown accustomed to the intifada, which has sparked new interest in the region.

The decision to limit participation came in the last two weeks in response to limited funds, said Marlene Post, chairwoman of birthright israel USA.

"If it was a question of just a few million dollars," birthright israel would "borrow the money," she said. But at $2,400 per participant, "unless we have backing from all three members, we just don’t have that money."

While each party originally was slated to contribute $70 million for the first five years, the Israeli government severely cut its funding this year.

And the federation system now plans to pay only $35 million, of which it is currently short $4 to $5 million, according to Aronson. As a result, UJC’s overseas partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel, has increased its contribution.

The philanthropists, have "carried the deficit," according to Post.

According to those close to the process, the federation system’s share has fallen short in part because the system disburses allocations after the campaigns are concluded at the end of the year, presenting a challenge of cash flow.

And the consensus-driven nature of the federation system leads to lengthy decision making, they say.

However, Robert Aronson, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the liaison between birthright and the federations, said federations planned to be "full partners" in birthright for the next five to 10 years.

Indeed, the Schusterman Family Foundation is trying to encourage the federations’ long-term partnership.

"We’re exploring ways through a possible challenge grant to create an incentive for broader and greater participation" by federations and their donors, Cardin said.

According to Aronson, "the wild card in all this is the government of Israel."

For many of birthright israel’s advocates, Israel’s stance on the program is frustrating.

While they recognize the hardship endured by Israel’s economy, stymying birthright is like biting the hand that feeds it, they say.

Apart from immediately helping to fuel Israel’s tourism industry, "these are people who could come back their whole lives," said Wayne Firestone, director of Hillel’s Center for Israel Affairs.

Furthermore, he said, "I think Israelis really appreciate in this difficult, difficult period of challenges — both on the security front but also financially — that their family and extended family from the Diaspora is with them physically."

Referring to Israel, he said, "It’s a little bit short-sighted to take actions that may endanger that for the future."

A spokeswoman for Benjamin Netanyahu, whose finance ministry constructs the budget, explained that "due to the cutbacks in the government budget, they had to cut back also in this project."

But despite "budget distress," Israel donated a symbolic level of funding — about $450,000 — to express its appreciation for the program, she said.

Israel also committed to restore full funding in 2005.

The fact that Israel currently has phased out its funding "doesn’t mean that they don’t recognize the importance of the project," and "it doesn’t mean that next year they will cut the budget also," she said.

Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman philanthropies, another birthright israel funder, takes the Israeli government at its word.

"All the stars are lining up for birthright to continue," he said.

Still, the birthright program could be on shaky ground.

Steinhardt sums up the scenario like this: some progress in shoring up funds from the federations, a commitment by a "fair number of the philanthropists" to continue funding the program, but no assurances from Israel.

"We are going to look at the program in the spring of this year and decide where we go," he said.

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