A new landmark in the effort to strengthen Jewish identity and positive connection to Israel among diaspora youth was reached this week with the announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that his government has approved $100 million in funding for Birthright Israel over the next three years.
That, along with the commitment of funders in this country to increase significantly their donations to Birthright, means that by 2013, more than half of all Jews in the world between the ages of 18 and 26 will have had a ten-day free trip to Israel. And that, in turn, suggests that a tipping point will have been reached in establishing the Birthright trip as a rite of passage, potentially as widespread as — and no doubt more personally inspiring than — a bar or bat mitzvah for young Jews.
At a time when diaspora Jewry leaders are deeply concerned about a perceived distancing from Judaism and Israel among many young people, Birthright increasingly is seen as a transformative project, if not a silver bullet, that could reverse the troubling trend.
Evaluative studies of some of the 250,000 participants in Birthright, now starting its second decade, consistently have shown that the experience has a strong, positive and lasting impact in terms of alumni feeling closer to Israel. Its effect on religious and communal attitudes has been less dramatic.
Announcing the financial boost at a Birthright mega-event in Jerusalem Jan. 6, attended by 3,000 young participants, Netanyahu noted that “this bold idea is a great success. Today it is the way tens of thousands of young Jews from around the world strengthen their connection to Judaism and Israel.”
While Netanyahu has been a supporter of Birthright from the outset, the Israeli government was a reluctant funder a decade ago.
A number of Knesset members questioned why they should provide free trips for “rich Americans” and other diaspora Jews.
By now, though, most Israeli politicians recognize the importance of strengthening a commitment to Israel among the next generation of diaspora Jewry.
The goal of the funding increase is to bring 51,000 participants a year on the trip by 2013, which would mean, according to Birthright officials, “that one in every two young Jewish adults worldwide will have gone to Israel on a Birthright Israel trip.”
Seventy-five percent of the participants come from North America.
Last year, 30,000 young Jews went on the trips but another 30,000 were wait-listed because of lack of funding.
The major increase in financial commitments from the Israeli government (which donated about $100 million in total during Birthright’s first ten years), and major diaspora donors is intended to eliminate the waiting list. This is seen as especially important because a majority of those who are wait-listed either do not reapply or become ineligible because they turn age out.
In addition to bringing more young people on Birthright, officials say they plan to improve the quality of the tours by providing “an integrated narrative” of the experience.
“The participants say the trip changes their life, but they can’t always say how,” noted Gidi Mark, the Jerusalem-based top executive of Birthright.
He said a program to train tour guides to help heighten and sharpen the Israel experience for participants is in the works.
Both Mark and Bob Aronson, president of the Birthright Israel Foundation in New York, agreed that their greatest challenge is coming up with the funding to match the Israeli government’s increase.
Aronson said the foundation’s commitment to increase its funding by $12 million this year, from $49.3 million in 2010, “stretches our goals dramatically, but I’m optimistic.”
The foundation has expanded its donor base to 13,500, from 2,000 two years ago, and is aiming for 50,000 in the next few years.
“We never asked” beyond the small group of mega-donors, Aronson said. In the future, he is hoping that Birthright alumni will become significant contributors themselves.
Many Jewish federations have reversed their “adversarial positions toward Birthright,” when it was seen as competition to their annual campaigns, he noted. Local federations can now sponsor their own buses of young people from their communities.
Jewish federations contribute about $7 million to Birthright annually.
Aronson said his primary job is to not only bring in more dollars but establish Birthright as a stable fixture that helps sustain American Jewish life.