Growing pains for a teen-aged Taglit-Birthright
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'It's a free trip to Israel! It's not a God-given right'

Growing pains for a teen-aged Taglit-Birthright

Once all spots were filled in a frenzied few days; nowadays trip organizers are asking for indefinite extensions. What’s changed?

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Young Jewish adults from all over the world participating in the Taglit Birthright program celebrate 10 years of the Birthright program at an event held at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, January 7, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Young Jewish adults from all over the world participating in the Taglit Birthright program celebrate 10 years of the Birthright program at an event held at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, January 7, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Your typical Jewish college student is studying hard, eating ramen for breakfast, lunch and dinner, when along comes a Birthright campus recruiter who suggests leaving it all for hot felafel and the view from Masada.

What college student would possibly turn down this chance at a 10-day, most-expense paid vacation to exotic Israel?

But they are.

“We know every provider is struggling,” says Charlotte Shitrit, trip coordinator at Taglit-Birthright Israel provider Sachlav. “It sounds ridiculous to say out loud: It’s a free trip to Israel! It’s not a God-given right.”

Birthright registration, once a frenzied few-day event with a mile-long waiting list, has been open for over a month and providers such as Sachlav say they are “working hard” to get enough participants for this year’s winter tours.

“We’re getting there, but across the board it is quiet, lower than normal. It’s not coming naturally, though: you would expect with a free Birthright trip, you wouldn’t have to work hard for it,” says the chatty British immigrant in Jerusalem. But she does.

Shitrit chalks up the poor registration to a glut of trip possibilities, while others cite poor marketing.

“The providers have no history of effective marketing and are now surprised that there are 1.5 people per seat instead of 10,” says David Abitbol, founder of Jewlicious, which has had interactions — some intimate — with Birthright since its inception in 1999.

Birthright participants visiting Masada, summer 2012. (photo credit: Taglit-Birthright/JTA)
Birthright participants visiting Masada, summer 2012. (photo credit: Taglit-Birthright/JTA)

“I know for a fact that there’s more money and more spots available than ever before. But for a long time the combination of not as many spots and lots of interest made providers lazy in terms of marketing,” says Abitbol.

And whereas few spots, uncertainty of the program’s continuance and word-of-mouth were once enough to make up for marketing, nowadays potential participants are also more lackadaisical about registration, taking for granted that the trip would be waiting for them until they are 27 years old.

An early October email from Birthright’s New York office that The Times of Israel was privy to indicates the organization’s awareness of the problem:

“Just a quick note to make sure that you all know that in light of this season’s lower registration numbers we are strongly considering keeping registration open indefinitely. For that reason, from now forward please do not communicate to prospective applicants in any way that registration will be closing.”

When approached by The Times of Israel, Birthright said the registration extension came at the request of the tour operators since “September was a very busy month with a confluence of events such as the start of the school year, Labor Day and the early start of the Jewish holidays.”

Fresh from a Los Angeles-to-New York flight, dynamic Taglit-Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark navigates traffic and elaborates on the fine art of closing registration.

Birthright Israel participants visiting Yad Vashem, summer 2012 (photo credit: Taglit-Birthright Israel participants taken with permission inside Yad Vashem/JTA)
Birthright Israel participants visiting Yad Vashem, summer 2012 (photo credit: Taglit-Birthright Israel participants taken with permission inside Yad Vashem/JTA)

“Registration is a delicate balance,” says Mark, a former career diplomat in Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “The goal: create a manageable number of reserves to find an optimal number to fill the planes, create homogeneous groups, and not over-register.”

According to Mark, registration could have already closed, but is being kept open to complete harder-to-fill special niche trips.

Mark’s assistant in the Israel office, Jonnie Schnytzer, clarifies that the leaked email came from a very junior worker who only began with the organization a month ago, and says it should not have been sent.

He admits there are currently a few thousand fewer potential participants in preregistration than last year, saying, “We’re probably a week behind last year but planning to close it within the week.”

As of Monday this week, says Schnytzer, some 24,000 have applied from North America, another 5,500 from the rest of the world.

“We’re planning to bring 17,000 this year, up 1,500 from last year, so somewhere in between there is the waiting list,” says Schnytzer.

The word on the street is somewhat different. Charismatic Momo Lifshitz, until 2009 by far the largest Birthright provider with his Oranim company, says that in meetings last week with several Birthright organizers, he was told there is no waiting list at all since the summer trips took care of them. He was also told there is no market in Canada and very minimal registration from there. Additionally, he says these organizers were told not to speak with the press.

Alicia Rosenblum and Jordan Rubenstein met on the Rainbow Tour, a Birthright trip organized by the Israel Experience catering to LGBT young adults. The two women will be wed in July on the 2nd anniversary of their meeting. (photo credit: Courtesy Alicia Rosenblum and Jordan Rubenstein/JTA)
Alicia Rosenblum and Jordan Rubenstein met on the Rainbow Tour, a Birthright trip organized by the Israel Experience catering to LGBT young adults. The two women will be wed in July on the 2nd anniversary of their meeting. (photo credit: Courtesy Alicia Rosenblum and Jordan Rubenstein/JTA)

In a series of phone calls, Lifshitz comes across as passionately disappointed with the current state of Birthright and says he left the organization when he was told to “stop offering honeymoons [to participants who married fellow participants] and talking about aliya.”

“I said to Birthright — ‘Shalom, you’re losing the way.’ I told Birthright, ‘I do not want to be with you anymore.'”

What he calls Birthright’s current focus on strengthening the community identity of the participants doesn’t allow for the “big picture” in which Birthright is much bigger than a single trip and should be used to stem assimilation and fight anti-Israeli hate.

“That ideology does not exist in Birthright any more, though there is no conflict between strengthening the communal idea and Israel,” says Lifshitz.

“Birthright has become another American organization in which the managers think pension, they don’t think vision,” says Lifshitz.

Perhaps. The IRS 990 forms of the main fundraising arm of Birthright, the Birthright Israel Foundation, indicate that $24 million-$88 million were raised each year between 2005 and 2011, with an average of circa $50 million. These forms also show foundation salaries, which in 2011 included a very competitive $465,000 for then-president Robert P. Aronson (who the same year and several years prior also drew over $350,000 as the senior development officer in the Detroit Federation).

‘I think today that if someone wants to be public and honest with the numbers, they have more money than applicants’

Says independent consultant Todd Edelman, “I think today that if someone wants to be public and honest with the numbers, they have more money than applicants.” Over the years, Edelman, a Birthright alum himself, has worked with several Birthright providers, including Oranim.

Be that as it may, with ever-increasing funding from major donors such as Sheldon Adelson and Michael Steinhardt, Birthright’s future seems assured as it has become one of the most identifiable, and arguably successful, Jewish institutions today.

According to a  recently released Pew survey: “Among those younger than 30 who have visited Israel, 48% participated in a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, a program that has been providing free trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18-26 for more than a decade. Far fewer American Jews ages 30-39 have participated in the program (24%), while those ages 40 or older were already past the age of eligibility when the program started.”

Almost half of Jewish young adults are going to Israel, and yet, also in the Pew report, the Birthright cohort feels less “emotional attachment” to Israel than their parents.

Among 18- to 29-year-olds, some 60 percent feel “somewhat to very” attached to Israel. Among their parents, the 50- to 64-year-old group, that number jumps to 74%.

But the Pew report in general is very good for the Jews, says Brandeis University Professor Leonard Saxe.

‘It never ceases to amaze me how the Jewish community is looking for the negative spin, the oy gevalt’

“It never ceases to amaze me how the Jewish community is looking for the negative spin, the oy gevalt! In terms of the Jewish community, this is great news: 10-plus years ago, the national Jewish population comes out and Alan Dershowitz suggested we’re disappearing!” says Saxe, who studies trends in the US Jewish community.

But it’s quite the contrary, says Saxe: the Pew survey indicates there are 6.2 million Jews, while Saxe’s own study’s findings point to 6.8 million. Titled “American Jewish Population Estimates: 2012,” Saxe’s study was conducted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, both centers he directs.

The best news: “90 percent of those who say they’re Jewish say they’re proud of being Jewish,” says Saxe.

Saxe cautions, however, in reading the Pew survey results, that the “Birthright effect” hasn’t yet been felt. For example in the intermarriage finding. Since Pew looked at 2005 until 2012 and young American Jews delay marrying in their 30s, it will take another three to five years to dramatically see the changed statistics.

In looking at the data since the first cohort of Birthright, “We’re seeing a 50% increase in the in-marriage rate, versus the control group, the waiting list rate. The Taglit rate is over 70%” Additionally, “Taglit alum are raising Jewish children, even if intermarried.”

Saxe’s pride is evident as he says, “As long as Taglit continues as it has in the past five to seven years, in the next 10 years we will see a big difference.

“Based on the evidence there is no program I know of that has been successful in meeting its goals in such a cost-effective way,” he says.

Lifshitz disagrees and says the money spent per participant is outrageously expensive. The Israeli government, which pays a third of the costs, “needs to take over Birthright Israel.” Israel, says Lifshitz, “has no say about anything” in the program. He contends the Foreign Ministry should be given alumni contact information so they can be given the opportunity of being turned into a “hasbara army.”

Lifshitz contends the Foreign Ministry should be given alumni contact information so they can be given the opportunity of being turned into a ‘hasbara army’

To date some 350,000 young adults have participated in Birthright from around the globe.

Former diplomat Gidi Mark calls them “unbiased” advocates for Israel.

“We don’t see Taglit participants as a hasbara tool for the Foreign Ministry of Israel. Though that could be a very good outcome, we don’t bring them so they will be a hasbara tool,” says Mark.

“Is the Israeli government entitled to the alumni data?” laughs Abitbol. “It’s entitled to have young Jews see how wonderful the country is and that’s all.”

Giving alumni information to the Foreign Ministry would “diminish the number of people who will want to go. It’s like ‘sign up here for a weekend in Florida’ and then you’ll be hounded forever for a time share. It’s a gift without conditions and that’s how it should be,” he chuckles.

“Could it be demand has peaked?” says Abitbol. Maybe, but if so, there “should be people sitting around in Birthright offices and Federation offices scratching their heads wondering what they did to fuck up such an epic program.”

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