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Birthright Israel Perseveres, Despite Fears, Funding Problems

November 4, 2002
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Josh Neman has been wrestling for three years over whether to take advantage of Birthright Israel’s free trips to the Jewish state.

Now after canceling out at the last minute last year, the 25-year old doctoral student in neurobiology at UCLA is taking the plunge.

“I’ve come to the decision that if God forbid anything’s going to happen, I won’t cancel this time,” said Neman, who is scheduled to depart with a UCLA Hillel group in late December.

“It’s a chance you have to take, but it’s worth the chance.”

All Israel experience programs that foster a link between young American Jews and the Jewish state have been flagging since the Palestinian intifada began more than two years ago.

Birthright Israel, which offers a free trip to Israel for 18-26 year olds, is drawing more participants than most Israel programs.

Still, the numbers are significantly lower than originally projected when the program was launched in late 1999 — and peace still seemed a possibility.

In addition, the program is grappling with funding issues.

The projected cost of the five-year program — which enters its fourth year in January — was $210 million, split evenly among the Israeli government, world Jewish communities and several major philanthropists.

Unlike the philanthropists and the Israelis, however, the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of the North American federation system, has not fully paid its portion.

Now the UJC is considering a resolution that would commit it to paying $39 million to the program — down from what it was originally slated to pay.

The impetus behind Birthright was the realization that 80 percent of American Jews had never been to Israel. By that reckoning, more than 200,000 18-26 year olds would have been eligible for Birthright trips.

Backers initially anticipated that Birthright would bring 90,000 young adults to Israel within five years, but expectations have now been slashed to 50,000.

So far, more than 33,000 young Jews have participated. An average of 70 percent of the participants during the first three years have come from North America.

The program was launched in December 1999 and publicized on college campuses and Jewish newspapers.

“It became a new, exciting, innovative idea in a time of peace,” said Marlene Post, chairwoman of Birthright Israel USA. “People would say to you, ‘Wow, we’re going to get a gift to go to Israel, it’s free. No strings attached.’ “

But enrollment has fallen since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, despite measures to ensure security on the program.

Free time to roam the streets has been eliminated. Birthright also gives each participant a cell phone and every bus a global positioning system, so groups can be tracked at all times.

Applications for trips this winter are at a record low.

More than 6,000 young adults, half of them from North America, have applied for this year’s winter trips. That number is slightly down from last year.

In 2000, the program’s first year, nearly 9,500 young adults toured Israel on Birthright programs. The following year the number rose to 13,364.

While overall numbers of participants haven’t fallen much — almost 12,000 young adults are expected to go on Birthright through next spring — the proportion of North Americans has dropped from 86 percent in the program’s first year to roughly 50 percent in its third year.

At the same time, increasing numbers of participants are coming from Argentina, France and the former Soviet Union.

Birthright officials speculate the increased numbers from these places stem from the more-threatening personal and economic situations in those regions.

The entire cost of the program — $1,600 per person — is subsidized.

Decreased attendance means Birthright’s total cost will be less than the projected $210 million, but officials can’t yet say by how much.

Initially, UJC planned to pay $52.5 million of the contribution from world Jewish communities. That included some $6 million from one of UJC’s overseas partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The remaining $17.5 million was to come from Keren Hayesod, which raises money from other Jewish communities around the world.

Now, however, UJC says it wants to pay $39 million.

So far it has paid “in the neighborhood of $9 million,” according to UJC President Stephen Hoffman, out of the $17 million it owes so far — the amount was supposed to increase incrementally each year, rather than be divided equally over five years.

Hoffman said the $52.5 million total would have included Birthright programs for high school students and others that never materialized.

As for the shortfall, Hoffman said it has to do with tight budgets at local federations.

“At the end of the day, I believe the single largest challenge in compliance has been the available dollars that communities have to work with,” he said.

But Hoffman said the few federations that haven’t paid up are the exception, not the rule.

Federation officials confirmed that Birthright enjoys wide support in the federation system.

“It’s one of the most important things that the national system has done for Jewish continuity,” said Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

“In order for our national system to be relevant, we have to keep programs like this alive. In addition, is there any better time to send kids to Israel than right now? Israel is desperate.”

At the UJC’s annual General Assembly last month in Philadelphia, the organization’s Board of Trustees voted to consider a resolution to pay its $39 million pledge to Birthright Israel. A vote on the resolution is expected in about a month.

Yet funding remains a problem.

“A major problem has been in fund raising for this program,” stated a June 10 memo from UJC to its Board of Trustees. “Federations have been very reluctant to cooperate” and “give us access to their donors, to work with us, or to raise the funds themselves.”

According to some federation leaders, the resistance stems from their lack of influence in the program’s policies.

Some communities, like Chicago, have not approved the entire amount requested because of concerns they hope to negotiate into the pending resolution.

Such sticking points relate to whether participants should be asked to pay some amount toward the trip, and whether federation’s role should be more publicized. They also are worried about the transparency of the program’s budget and ways to ensure the program’s viability.

The resolution before UJC’s Board of Trustees would increase federations’ payments to the program by 33 percent, based on each community’s population and campaign dollars.

The UJC resolution also is asking the Jewish Agency for Israel to more than double its portion of UJC’s share.

Birthright officials say they approve of UJC’s efforts.

The extent of discussions at the recent General Assembly “made us understand that there was a real, deep interest, and more than an interest, an action to make certain the UJC was a partner in the Birthright experience,” Post said.

Whether the program will continue beyond five years is not yet known.

Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman philanthropies, one of the major philanthropies supporting Birthright, said, “We will be going back to the philanthropists to talk about future commitments, but nobody yet knows what the result of that will be.”

“Everybody who knows this program is committed to it,” he said, “It’s really been so successful beyond the founders’ dreams. The commitment to it is deep and abiding.”

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