NEW YORK (JTA) — Boosters of Birthright Israel are hoping that the Israeli government’s decision to more than double its investment in the popular free 10-day trips for young Diaspora Jews will yield dramatic results.
But their hopes could be short lived if Jewish philanthropists fail to ramp up their own contributions to the tune of some $222 million over the next three years.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last week that his government would provide $100 million in financing to Birthright Israel from 2011 to 2013.
The funding, which will rise over the three-year period from $26 million this year to $40 million by 2013, is aimed at increasing the number of Birthright participants to 51,000 annually by 2013. Last year, 30,000 Diaspora Jews went on the program.
“It’s a historic decision which is going to revolutionize the relationships of young Jews to the State of Israel,” said Gidi Mark, the CEO of Taglit-Birthright Israel. “It’s going to bring, for the first time ever, the majority of young Jews to Israel.”
That prediction will hold true only if Jewish philanthropists, who now fund about half the Birthright budget, increase their investment.
While the program brings tens of thousands of 18- to 26-year-old Diaspora Jews to Israel each year, spots are available now for only about half who apply.
About a decade old, Birthright Israel was envisioned as a more or less equal partnership between the Israeli government, the Jewish federation system and private philanthropists, with each providing about a third of the budget.
But the federation share of funding has remained low. In 2010, federations provided only about $6 million of Birthright’s $76 million budget, according to Birthright officials. That has increased pressure on the Israeli government and donors to make up the difference.
The Birthright Israel Foundation, the charitable organization that helps fund the program, raised $49 million for Birthright in 2010. The budget for 2011 is projected at $87 million. By 2013, it will be $126 million, Birthright officials said.
Robert Aronson, the president of the foundation, said there is no question that the Israeli government will reduce its giving if the foundation fails to raise the balance needed to bring significantly more Diaspora Jews to Israel over the next three years. It’ll take another $222 million over three years, he estimates.
“We have our work cut out for us,” Aronson said.
A major U.S. fundraising push under way is targeting Birthright alumni, as well as their parents and grandparents, in an effort to expand the foundation’s financial base well beyond the core group of major philanthropists that helped launch the organization.
Birthright has been sustained recently in large part by a $100 million gift from gaming magnate Sheldon Adelson, as well as continuing support from founding philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman. But in the decade since its founding the donor base has expanded to more than 13,000.
Aronson says it is most important to ask parents and grandparents for contributions, as they care about Birthright because they can see its effect.
Hailed as one of the most successful Jewish identity projects in recent memory, Birthright Israel has brought more than 250,000 young Jews to Israel since its inception in 2000. Based on data showing that an Israel trip was among the most effective contributors to Jewish identity formation, Birthright aimed to counter trends showing declining connection to Israel and weaker Jewish identification among young Diaspora Jews.
In 2009, a Birthright-funded study by Brandeis University found that participants in the program were 57 percent more likely to marry other Jews and 30 percent more likely to view raising Jewish children as “very important.”
As Birthright’s numbers grow, the level of Jewish engagement of participants tends to decline, which could dilute that largely rosy picture. But Len Saxe, the Brandeis professor who directed the 2009 study, said further research shows that the impact of Birthright doesn’t change even if the participants come from less Jewishly engaged backgrounds.
“It really doesn’t matter exactly what the mix is,” Saxe told JTA. “You still have the Birthright effect.”
Expanding the range of that effect now depends in large measure on how much money Aronson and his staff can wring from the pockets of American Jews, a task sure to be complicated by a still uncertain economic climate.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of effort,” Aronson said. “When I see the results of Birthright Israel, and the product in effect that we create for our young people, I am very optimistic that the American Jewish community will respond.”