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Birthright Gets Go-ahead for Future, but Funding Sources Still Not Secure

November 11, 2003
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The international Jewish partnership that has sent nearly 50,000 youngsters from around the world on free trips to Israel is slated to continue past its five pilot years.

Birthright israel, the free trip for young Jewish adults who have never been to the Jewish state on a peer tour, enters its fifth year this winter amid struggles to secure funding from two of its three main backers.

Despite the commitment announced recently by birthright’s steering committee to continue the program, some say the resolve of funders who have faltered in the past remains in question.

That’s why birthright backers are expected to lobby for the program at the North American Jewish federation system’s annual General Assembly, which will be held Nov. 16-19 in Jerusalem.

Funds for the $210 million program are evenly divided among 14 philanthropists, world Jewish communities — largely the federation system — and the Israeli government.

But the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for North American federations, has failed to get all of its members to allocate the amounts requested for the program.

An internal UJC memo revealed that, as of Oct. 29, the federation system had fallen $7.5 million short on funding for the program, which has sent some 30,000 young adults to Israel from North America.

Citing its economic crisis, Israel plans to withdraw all but a token amount of funding for the program this year. Funding levels will return to normal after this year, Israeli officials said.

However, judging from past difficulties in raising money for the program, Lynn Schusterman — whose philanthropic foundation has provided $5 million for the program — is skeptical that birthright’s future funding is assured.

“We have two partners that aren’t at the table,” she said. “The philanthropists are great,” but “we have two other partners that are not.”

“The Israeli government, of course, has said that they’ll be there,” Schusterman said, but “when they made their first commitment, they were going to be there and they’re not — and the same for the federations.”

Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs and birthright’s steering committee chairman, announced recently that “all partners will continue their commitment for the next five years, and then renew for the next 500 years.”

But insiders say Sharansky is not the stumbling block to Israel’s funding; Benjamin Netanyahu is. As finance minister, Netanyahu — who is said to be lukewarm on birthright — wields more control over Israeli government funding for the program.

A spokesman said Netanyahu would not comment on the issue.

In the federation system, UJC CEO Stephen Hoffman is promoting the program, which has been one of the largest providers of tourism to Israel during the Palestinian intifada.

In an Oct. 31 memo to federations, Hoffman included a personal anecdote, about visiting his daughter’s university, to illustrate the need to reach out to Jewish youth.

“I was struck hard by the realization of how little I really understand this younger generation,” Hoffman said. “As a system, we need to collectively pause and ask whether we understand how the next generation identifies themselves as Jews.”

“Too many federations have not fulfilled their full requested shares,” he continued, referring to birthright. “Is it really about limited funds, or too many priorities? Or is it our failure to understand the different way we have to reach this generation?”

Marlene Post, chairwoman of birthright israel usa, said she is “optimistic” that Hoffman can get federations to pony up.

Until now, she said, Hoffman has been preoccupied with reshaping UJC, an organization formed four years ago from a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal.

“What you’re seeing is that this is a new focus,” Post said.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Agency for Israel, a UJC beneficiary, plans to increase funding for birthright.

“We have increasingly upped the ante, so to speak, in putting in more money this year geared to youngsters wanting to go to birthright from the former Soviet Union” and “countries where the communities there don’t have the assets to send them,” said Carole Solomon, chairwoman of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors.

Solomon could not say how much the agency would provide this year, since its budget process is not yet finished.

However, the Jewish Agency “would probably be close to doubling our commitment,” she said.

“I think there’s been a tremendous investment, and not just financial,” in birthright, Solomon said. Data “proves that it is an extraordinary life-changing experience for these youngsters.”

In light of the recent National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, which Solomon said showed a shrinking Jewish population in the United States, “anything that works that positively” is worth “whatever support we can give it,” she said.

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