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Birthright Hits a Magic Number As It Strives for Greater Funding

June 1, 2006
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Birthright israel could do a heck of a lot worse than Stephanie Lowenthal as the 100,000th participant on the group’s free, 10-day, identity-building trips to Israel. The 26-year-old New Yorker is attractive, eloquent and poised — and, as was evident during a news conference Wednesday, she’ll do well as birthright’s public face when the organization celebrates this milestone next week in Israel.

“Planning a trip to Israel has been something I’ve wanted to do my whole life, but it has not been feasible until now,” said Lowenthal, who works in communications for the NASDAQ Stock Market.

She didn’t grow up particularly observant, though she had a bat mitzvah and her family is “pretty Conservative,” she said. Lowenthal hasn’t served as a leader in any Jewish group and, significantly here, she’s never been to Israel.

All of this, birthright officials say, means Lowenthal’s background is a fairly accurate representation of many of the program participants.

Had Lowenthal waited any longer to sign up, she would not have been able to secure a spot on a birthright trip at all. That’s because the trip is for Jews aged 18-26 — and Lowenthal just makes the cutoff.

And while she did end up finding a place on this month’s trip — and an auspicious place to boot — thousands of other young Jewish adults today find themselves on birthright’s growing waiting list.

The waiting list, which birthright officials say numbers around 30,000 people, is a testament to the program’s popularity and success. But it’s also indicative of the group’s struggle to find sufficient funding for everyone who wants to go before it’s too late.

“We have to get a lot bigger quicker if we hope to stem the tide” of declining Jewish identity in the Diaspora, said Michael Steinhardt, a founder and funder of the 6-year-old program.

According to a 2004 study by independent researchers at Brandeis University, birthright, launched late in 1999 as a five-year pilot project, makes a profound impact on participants’ Jewish identities. Many become active in their schools’ Hillels when they return to campus. Some go into Jewish professional life and between 4,000 and 5,000 of the participants from around the world now live in Israel, officials say.

Last year, in an effort to ensure its sustainability, broaden its base of financial support and accommodate the explosion in the number of Jewish young adults interested in taking part, birthright founded the birthright israel Foundation.

About 14 months later, birthright officials say that the foundation has made some significant strides forward — and still has a long way to go.

This is “not a time to pat ourselves on the shoulder,” Steinhardt said.

The foundation changed the way birthright raised money. In its first five years, the program relied on a relatively small number of donors making large gifts. Now the foundation has made an effort to draw in many more donors at lower levels, in addition to big gifts.

Between January and April of this year, the number of gifts to birthright under $50,000 was four times the number from the same period the previous year, adding up to somewhere in the mid-six figures, the foundation’s president, Jay Golan, told JTA.

“I see a very strong broadening out of the support base of this,” he said. “I’m really pleased. People do seem to be very enthusiastic about the opportunity to give to birthright. Many people just simply didn’t know.”

Since the fall, Golan said, the group has attracted three new donors at the $1 million level and is anticipating others. Further, 12 of the original 14 philanthropists who backed the group are still on board (one of the original group has since died), though not necessarily at the original level.

In addition, the Israeli government — which due to budget restraints during the intifada had slashed its contribution to a token amount — has agreed to match outside donations one dollar for every two dollars up to a maximum of $20 million from the government for next year.

And the Jewish Agency for Israel and the U.S. federation system each kicked in some $5 million for this year’s program. Birthright is hoping for the same next year.

This summer, birthright will be taking 10,000 young Jewish adults on its trips and is aiming to do the same in the fall. Each group of 10,000 costs about $24 million.

Susie Gelman, chairwoman of the birthright israel Foundation, said: “Birthright israel is such a slam dunk success in the Jewish world. It’s imperative on all of us to keep it going.”

Birthright officials say they recognize that many of those who are applying — like Lowenthal — could be aged out if they are turned away.

“It’s generally first-come first-served, but there is some preference given to try to enable those who won’t have another opportunity,” Gelman said. “The birthright israel corporation is very mindful of the fact that, all things being equal, those nearing the end of their eligibility are given some preference.”

Since birthright cannot currently afford to take as many people as it would like on its trips, officials say, it also has not been able to organize a full-fledged alumni follow-up program, which the group sees as extremely important.

Nevertheless, the group ran about 150 alumni events in 2005 that attracted about 13,000 people, and this number does not include those events run by the alumni themselves.

“It’s a dilemma, because where do you put the emphasis of the funding — on the trip itself or on follow up?” said Marlene Post, secretary of the foundation’s board.

“Though the trip in itself is fabulous and opens vistas for every individual young person that goes to Israel, it’s the follow up that really gives even greater meaning to the trip. It reinforces all the content that one gets on a 10-day trip.”

For her part, Lowenthal said she hopes to engage in some follow up of her own upon her return.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to reconnect with my Judaism, see and experience the things I learned about as a child, and share my journey with family and friends,” she said.

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