Birthright Israel set to announce five-year ‘greening’ process

Organization will integrate environmental content and activities into Israel visits, thanks to ‘transformational gift’ in honor of Birthright co-founder Charles Bronfman

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A Birthright Israel group exploring the desert. (Sarah Kornbluh)
A Birthright Israel group exploring the desert. (Sarah Kornbluh)

Birthright Israel, which has brought more than 800,000 young Jewish adults to Israel since its founding in 1999, is to embark on a major project to go green.

The initiative — to be announced at a two-day conference of the Jewish Funders Network in Phoenix, Arizona, that starts on March 19, is being made possible by what the organization describes as “a transformational gift” from Stephen and Claudine Bronfman, Ellen Bronfman Hauptman, and Andrew Hauptman to honor Birthright co-founder Charles Bronfman.

Final-stage interviews are underway to appoint an environmental project manager, who will steer the plan forward alongside Gia Arnstein, VP of Education at Birthright Israel.

The project, funded for five years, will involve work on three levels.

The first will be integrating environmental content into all programs. These include the classic, free, 10-day Birthright trips, set to bring some 25,000 young Jews to Israel this year, as well as the more bespoke Onward Israel and Excel, both of which provide internships in Israel.

Arnstein explained that Birthright would first create the framework and pedagogy for the new green approach, and then work with the tour organizers and tour guides it contracts with to work on Birthright tours.

The guides — more than 700 of whom have been trained to work with Birthright over the years — would gain knowledge that they could pass on to colleagues and non-Birthright groups, she added.

The Onward program is already starting to work with an Israeli organization, RenewIL, on a pilot project to offset the carbon emissions involved in visiting Israel.

RenewIL seeks to collect cash from travelers to Israel who want to reduce the carbon footprint of their trips, allocating those funds to certified and verified climate-positive initiatives in Israel or programs outside Israel that use Israeli products and services.

A Birthright Israel group in Israel poses for a group photo. (Alisa Volosnikova)

Another aspect of Birthright’s greening will be to create a small number of tailor-made, environmentally oriented programs in Israel for those who want to dig deeper.  These might take the form of Birthright tour buses focusing on visits to places with environmental importance or internships with Israeli companies in the climate tech or ag-tech fields.

A third plank will involve examining how best to make the organization itself more sustainable through, for example, using electric buses or serving vegan food.

Stephen Bronfman, who has been environmentally active for years, said, “My sister Ellen and I have grown up with Birthright Israel on our minds. We have seen our father commit enormous amounts of his time, energy, passion, and resources to this organization from the very start.”

“We’re very conscious of being the next links in that chain. And it is our kids, and their generation, who are growing up in a world which is being challenged by a range of environmental issues, especially the climate crisis.

“Consequently, helping Birthright Israel address these vital challenges is a natural path for us to honor our father’s legacy and to commit to the next generation of Jewish life.”

Nigel Savage, founder and former director of the US Jewish environmental organization Hazon (renamed Adamah), has been advising Stephen Bronfman and Ellen Bronfman Hauptman on the project since January 2022, and will continue as the senior lead consultant.

Nigel Savage, director of Hazon. (photo credit: Courtesy Hazon/JTA)
Nigel Savage, founder and former CEO of Hazon/Adamah, who is advising Stephen Bronfman and Ellen Bronfman Hauptman on greening Birthright. (Courtesy Hazon/JTA)

He told The Times of Israel that while Jewish environmental groups were mushrooming in Israel and the US, this initiative was significant because it was happening in a mainstream Jewish educational organization.

“The key line of Birthright on this issue comes from the Ethics of the Fathers,” he went on, referring to a collection of moral rabbinic teachings from some two millennia ago. “This says that you’re not required to complete the task (in this case of halting climate change and restoring the environment) but nor are you free to desist from it. This line turns out to be massively relevant to the crises we face today. Emotionally, how do you address climate in the 21st century? The answer is we are not able to complete the task. It’s above the pay grade of any company, country, or billionaire. Birthright says we can’t fix it by ourselves, but we are determined to address this as best as we can.”

Arnstein added, “From the time of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), through the Talmud, and up through the work of early modern Zionists in the 19th and 20th centuries, a central thread of Jewish life has been threefold: strengthening Jewish life, preserving and protecting the land, and striving to create a better world for all… Consequently, Birthright Israel wishes to uphold, and to leverage, these deep-seated Jewish values in the contemporary context of climate change, carbon footprints, and green initiatives.

Charles Bronfman (photo credit: Courtesy)
Charles Bronfman speaking at a Taglit-Birthright event. (Courtesy)

“As the leading Jewish educational enterprise in modern history, BRI acknowledges its vital position and responsibility for ensuring that we help new Jewish generations learn these connections and understand these values.”

Arnstein said that this was not a project that would end in five years, but rather a  “change of mindset.”

The Jewish Funders Network conference will this year include a pre-conference site visit showcasing how Arizona Jews for Justice are helping climate refugees, mainly from Central America, and homeless people in Phoenix, whose lives are increasingly being affected by extreme temperatures.

Set for the morning of March 19, the site visit is being organized by the Green Funders’ Forum, founded by JFN Israel to support and mobilize the Jewish philanthropic community to get involved in climate-related issues.

During the confab, veteran Israeli environment campaigner and former Knesset member Alon Tal will address a workshop on Jewish philanthropy’s role in meeting climate change challenges.

Most Popular
read more: