Birthright budget problems are a communal emergency


Jonathan S. Tobin | JNS

A curious thing occurred at the end of 2020. A program promoted by the organized American-Jewish community was proven to be a tremendous success. But not everyone was happy about it.

(Courtesy of Birthright Israel)

So the recent news that this program is now having budget problems will probably prompt mixed responses from a community that is clearly ambivalent about measures undertaken to ensure that it both survives and thrives.

The program in question is Taglit-Birthright Israel. Founded in 1999, it was meant to ensure that every young Jew who wanted to go on a trip to Israel was able to do so free of charge. Since then, several hundred thousand young adults have taken advantage of the offer. And according to a study conducted and published two years ago by Brandeis University’s Jewish Futures Project, the results have been impressive.

In an era when assimilation and intermarriage have taken a huge toll on the Jewish community, the 10-day trip has changed lives. The Brandeis study showed nearly half of those eligible took advantage of Birthright. More importantly, those who did so were far more likely to be somewhat, or very, attached to Israel; feel a sense of belonging to the Jewish people; and feel they had a lot in common with Israeli Jews.

The most startling statistic was participants were 160% more likely to end up with a Jewish partner or spouse.

The response to a study that ought to have been treated as great news at the time was far from unanimously positive. According to a Times of Israel story, many involved in Jewish life — and the growing Jewish communal sector devoted to interfaith outreach — were upset by the very idea that Birthright was a tool that could be used to reduce the rate of intermarriage.

The first study that pointed to the enormous increase in intermarriage — the 1990 National Jewish Population Study — generated a sense of crisis in the Jewish world that led most federations and other Jewish philanthropies to shift their priorities. Programs aimed at promoting what was then called “continuity” (a euphemism for encouraging Jews to marry other Jews and create Jewish families) became the rage. That involved more money for the three things that increase a sense of Jewish peoplehood: Jewish schools, Jewish camps and Israel trips.

Day schools are the most effective but have two built-in problems. One is that their exorbitant cost makes it hard for middle-class families to afford them. The other is that many, if not most, non-Orthodox American Jews are so wary of being seen as part of a sectarian movement that they prefer to send their kids to public or secular private schools than Jewish ones.

Camps are also effective but suffer from some of the same problems. Trips to Israel were not something that was a priority for most Jews.

That’s where Birthright came in. A group of large backers, including financier Michael Steinhardt, Seagram’s heir Charles Bronfman and casino owner Sheldon Adelson, put up sufficient funds, with others pitching in, to create a program that would offer every Jewish young adult a chance to see Israel for free. The Brandeis study demonstrates that it succeeded in doing exactly what its founders hoped.

More than 20 years later, organized American Jewry’s attitudes towards “continuity” and Israel have changed.

Intermarriage is just one aspect of the problem of assimilation and demographics that results in a declining sense of Jewish peoplehood. And it’s true that many intermarried families embrace Judaism and Jewish identity with a fervor that surpasses that of many in-married couples.

But it’s equally the case that on the whole, the children of intermarriage are less likely to get a Jewish education and more likely to intermarry themselves. They are less likely to affiliate with the community, contribute to Jewish causes or to feel a sense of connection to other Jews and Israel.

They form part of what is the fastest-growing slice of those who, in one way or another, identify as Jews. That’s the group demographers call “Jews of no religion.”

All of this means Birthright is more important than ever because it is able to reach a broad cross-section of the Jewish population and have a tremendous impact on it.

It is thus no accident that leftist anti-Zionist groups, like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, which traffic in antisemitic libels aimed at the Jewish state, have protested against Birthright. This is why the news that Birthright is planning to cut back its trips in 2023 remains so alarming.

In 2022, the group took a record 35,000 Americans to Israel. But due to rising costs of the program, it plans to reduce the number of participants to 23,500 in the coming year.

This is both an inevitable consequence of inflation and the fact that one of the major funders of Birthright since its inception, the Adelson Family Foundation, has reportedly cut its annual donation to $10 million, down from $35 to $40 million in the past.

This is a tragedy. Despite the fears of federations and the political agitation against Israel, the strong connection to the Jewish state and Jewish people that is engendered by these trips is needed more than ever. While schools and camps are still vital, there is simply no substitute for what Birthright has accomplished.

Throughout its first two decades, the public assumed that a few wealthy individuals could be relied upon to keep it going. But it always needed more than just a handful of benefactors to survive.

While interfaith outreach groups and anti-Zionists may not be upset about a decline in Birthright participants, no one who cares about perpetuating Jewish life in North America should be under illusions that their community doesn’t need to look to Israel as a spiritual center and source of inspiration. Birthright is too important to be allowed to be just one more victim of a bad economy or the decisions of individual foundations to shift their priorities. Philanthropic foundations and individual donors need to step up and compensate for the budget shortfall. The alternative is to admit failure — not merely for one program but for the U.S. Jewish community as a whole.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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