'In the most bleak of circumstances, we see a 7-10% drop'

Reports of Birthright’s decline have been greatly exaggerated, officials say

After anecdotal allegations of a 50% fall in winter trip numbers, official stats tell a different tale. But only in March will we get the full story

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

Illustrative: Participants on a Birthright Israel trip. (Courtesy)
Illustrative: Participants on a Birthright Israel trip. (Courtesy)

Birthright’s winter numbers are down for 2019. But far from a 20-50 percent drop, as reported this week by Haaretz, a spokeswoman from Birthright Israel claimed the expected dip is in the ballpark of 7-10%.

In a widely shared article, Haaretz alleges a sharp drop in participation rates this winter based on conversations with five of the 11 North American trip providers. Concerned over backlash from the powerful parent organization, the providers maintained anonymity.

The Times of Israel exchanged emails with the largest of the North American trip providers, Hillel International. From the midst of the controlled energetic chaos of its annual national conference in Denver, this week, the organization strongly rejected the notion of a massive downturn on its trips.

According to Matthew E. Berger, Vice President of communications for Hillel International, “Hillel International is pleased that our Birthright Israel recruitment remains steady since last winter, with nearly the same number of participants and buses as a year ago.

“We have been able to maintain our role as the largest provider of Birthright Israel trips for college-age participants by continuing to invest in our professionals on campus, who form meaningful relationships with students and weave students’ Birthright Israel experience into their overall Jewish educational and community experiences while on campus,” said Berger.

Jonathan Lipnicki (center) wearing his 600,000th participant hat, with his tour guide (left) and Birthright CEO Doron, Tour Guide, Jonathan,Gidi Mark, Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark, August 2017. (courtesy Jonathan Lipnicki)

The actual number of participants in the winter 2019 season will only be released in March, said Birthright spokeswoman Yarden Avriel Lato, who expects year totals to roughly equal the unprecedented 2018 totals.

According to Birthright CEO Gidi Mark, “In sharp contradiction to the recent misleading report — in 2018, we expect to have a record of over 48,000 participants enjoy the gift of an educational experience with Birthright Israel– our largest yearly participant number since inception.”

The data provided by the organization seems to support Mark’s statement. Winter arrivals ebb and flow: 2015 saw 13,593 participants, in 2016 some 15,043 landed, 16,214 in 2017, and in 2018 there were 15,577.

“Even in the most bleak of circumstances, we see only a 7-10% drop for the winter numbers,” said spokeswoman Avriel Lato.

Pessimistic perceptions of numerical realities

In a random sampling of North American-based trip organizers, The Times of Israel could not numerically confirm any extraordinary drop of participation, especially since the season only commenced two weeks ago. And yet, in the course of several conversations with North American-base trip organizers, there is still a perception of a massive downturn, even as the hard numbers may tell the opposite story.

University of Oregon Hillel students at the Western Wall on a trip to Israel. (Courtesy)

Andy Gitelson, the executive director at Oregon Hillel, said that instead of experiencing a decline this winter, his group of 20 participants is five students larger than last year’s winter trip.

He added that Hillel is only one of the trip recruiters and providers on the Oregon campus. “There are other students going this winter but on other trips for various reasons. We will know the total number from our campus going in a few months (our trip plus all other providers),” said Gitelson.

One New England-based organizer said the numbers in his region “are flat.” He hypothesized they did not see a decline because there are full-time Birthright coordinators on area campuses.

Andy Gitelson, executive director of the University of Oregon Hillel. (courtesy)

Both Gitelson and the East Coast organizer spoke to perceived problems with gathering participants at other campuses. They include competition with elite school’s free trips abroad through liberally bestowed travel grants; foreign Jewish peace corps efforts, such as the Jewish Agency’s Project Ten; and timely US-based service trips to aid, for example, victims of Houston floods or the Jewish community affected by the Pittsburgh mass-shooting attack.

Additionally both organizers stressed a perceived trend in which young American Jews are putting the trip on the back burner and postponing it for a more convenient time post-graduation.

“Even if numbers are not down, the excitement and sense of urgency to sign up is not what it was. We still hear from plenty of students that they know about and want to go on the trip but they are either looking to do it after they study abroad, get a few years into school or graduate, [or] before starting work,” said Gitelson.

The New England organizer mentioned a more insidious and widely publicized claim — that liberal college students are unwilling to sign on to a trip that ignores the 50-year military occupation of the West Bank, or with an organization that cozies up to a major donor of President Donald Trump, Sheldon Adelson.

A recent JStreet-U petition signed by some 1,500 students nationwide called for the inclusion of Palestinian voices in the trip.

“There is just no longer the enthusiastic ownership over the trip and it is not seen as exciting or relevant,” said the East Coast organizer.

However, through multiple conversations with Birthright this week, it appears the organization is well aware of those many concerns — and adapting.

A growing menu of experiences

There is a dizzying array of trips to choose from on the Birthright website. The “classic” 7-10 day Jewish identity trips can now be geared to any number of niche communities — from frum, sex-segregated groups to those focused on LGBTQ students. The “themed” trip track spotlights extreme sports and is advertised under flashy names such as “Israel to the Maxxx” or “Israel Go Wild.”

Participants in the Birthright Israel trip. (courtesy)

In a nod to students unwilling to take time off from their studies, there is now also a new Study Abroad option. Participants “use the country as a classroom” and stay for a quick summer school of 12-14 days in which students can earn three hours of credit (for a fee), and study archaeology and conflict resolution.

Other topics on offer include a deep look at the social diversity of the country.

According to Birthright spokeswoman Avriel Lato, “After a brief intermission in November 2017, programs focusing on co-existence projects were reintroduced that same tour season with the launch of our Social Diversity module, focused on meaningful encounters between participants and Israeli Arabs, Druze, Ethiopian Jews, Haredim and other members of Israeli society. Additionally, we continue to introduce relevant educational programs on the issue.”

The IfNotNow display targeting Birthright participants at New York’s JFK airport, Monday, June 18, 2018. (Steven Davidson/ Times of Israel)

Addressing the issue of a lack of Palestinian voices and constructive conversation on the military occupation in the West Bank, she said “all participants attend a geopolitics module where the complex issues of the Middle East are addressed without endorsing any specific agendas, opinions or beliefs.”

Participants are encouraged to “formulate their own views and ask questions in a constructive and respectful manner.” Obliquely addressing the past summer’s spate of protest “walk outs” from Israel trips and “interventions” at airports engineered by far-left organization IfNotNow, Avriel Lato said participants may “extend their trips and travel anywhere in the region to see and experience what they desire, before returning home, and continuing their Jewish journey as they see fit.”

A new focus on ‘older’ young adults

In a clear departure from the trips’ founding vision, a growing number of the trips on offer are exclusively for the 27-32 age range. Recently, the almost 20-year-old organization began revising its age eligibility window, which was initially for 18-26 year olds.

Avriel Lato said the organization initiated the broader age group after noticing there were many young Jews who were interested in the “free gift” of the trip, but had missed out due to postponing it year after year.

“Essentially we thought it would be fitting because 27-32 in 2018 is much closer to 21-22 in 1999, when the whole trip started,” she said. “Life decisions are taken later in life.” The organization therefore decided to, she explained, “extend what we call ‘young adults.'”

Another shift Avriel Lato has noticed in recent years is the preferred timing of the trip. This year, she said, the “summer season” lasted until the end of October, the latest ever, to accommodate the largely older groups who wished to travel then. In general, she said she’s noticed an increasing move from winter to summer.

“Reasons for this season’s expected marginal difference could arise from a few factors, including seeing a growing preference over time amongst participants to attend summer trips,” she said.

“It is a lot more appealing to enjoy the beach in a sunny Tel Aviv, versus grey December and January,” said Avriel Lato.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed