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Birthright Seeks to Expand Funding As the Demand for Trips Multiplies

April 1, 2005
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After a five-year pilot period that was, by all accounts, an enormous success, the birthright israel program has entered a new phase. It is working to ensure its sustainability, broaden its base of financial support and accommodate an explosion in the number of Jewish young adults interested in taking part.

To that end, birthright this week launched a new foundation aimed at expanding the number of philanthropists funding the program, which over the last five years has brought nearly 80,000 Jews who have never been on a peer tour on a free trip to Israel.

On Tuesday, the program was buoyed by news that the government of Israel had earmarked $10 million for birthright in its 2005 budget.

Last year, due to budget restraints, Israel had slashed its contribution to a token amount.

“We need to thank the government of Israel, the people of Israel and particularly the prime minister and Minister Sharansky for their vision in ensuring the viability of the birthright israel program,” Marlene Post, an officer and member of the board of directors of the birthright israel foundation, said, referring to Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs.

The creation of the foundation, based in New York, follows a period of financial uncertainty that had led some to question the program’s long-term viability.

When it began, Jewish communities worldwide — largely the North American Jewish federation system — the Israeli government and a group of 14 philanthropists had agreed to divide evenly the funding for the $210 million program. That would come out to about $14 million annually for five years from each of the three funding arms.

But in the intervening years, some of these sponsors fell short of their initial commitments, mostly due to financial constraints. In addition to the cuts by Israel’s government, the federations reduced their funding.

According to birthright, the federation system is giving birthright $5 million for 2005, the Jewish Agency for Israel is giving another $5 million, philanthropists are giving $13 million and Israel is giving $10 million.

In addition, Keren Hayesod is giving $2 million, along with an anonymous $2 million donation to bump the Israeli contribution up to $12 million, said Robert Aronson, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, who has acted as liaison between birthright and the federations.

“The federations, the communities, have been supportive, very supportive, and have made their best efforts,” said Susan Gelman, chair of the board of directors of the birthright foundation. “But federation campaigns are not growing by exponential numbers at this point and, of course, there are a lot of competing priorities in the federation system.”

Although the program’s financial picture seems better than it was at the height of the intifada, it still does not allow birthright to accommodate even half of the young North American Jews who are hoping to participate.

“The good news is that the funding is stabilized and commitments are being met,” said Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. “The bad news is that for every participant going on birthright this summer there will be two who will be left behind.”

Charles Bronfman was one of the original founders of birthright, as was Michael Steinhardt.

Gideon Mark, international director of marketing and public relations for birthright, said the program is working to try to increase its budget so eligible participants won’t be denied spots.

Birthright now has 15,000 participants from North America registered for its spring/summer trips, running from May 14 through June 30, even though there is space for just 6,500. In 2004, 10,523 North Americans took part in the summer trips.

“We’re absolutely better off than we were a year ago because a year ago the Israeli government hadn’t approved the budget,” said Lynn Schusterman, who, along with her late husband, Charles, was one of the founders of birthright.

But Schusterman, who has signed on for another five years of support, worries about the program in the long term.

“Will we be able to sustain it at the numbers that we want — bringing 20,000 young people to Israel” each year? she said. “Right now we’re not able to.”

Gelman said that, due to the increasing demand for the program, birthright “needed to expand our efforts beyond the original 14 philanthropists.”

“The philanthropists, I don’t think, ever thought they would be expected to carry birthright ad infinitum,” she added, though “some of them have re-upped” their gifts, she said.

The new group is also charged with addressing post-trip programming for birthright alumni.

It has announced that its president will be Jay Golan, who has been part of senior management at Carnegie Hall since 1989 and senior director since 2002.

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