Onward Israel merges with Birthright to magnify reach

The first Birthright Israel group during the pandemic
The first Birthright Israel group after a year-long absence due to the coronavirus pandemic, May 24, 2021. (Photo by Erez Uzir via JNS.org)

By Toby Tabachnick and Faygie Holt

Two organizations that provide Israel experiences for Jewish young adults, Birthright Israel and Onward Israel, announced their merger last week with the goal of strengthening the relationship between Diaspora Jews worldwide and the Jewish state.

“Since its inception, Birthright has evolved from solely the traditional 10-day trip to cater to the growing needs and interests of our participants, such as specialized trips for professional development opportunities, those with disabilities, the LGBTQ community and much more,” Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark said. “As a result of the merger, Birthright Israel, which will include Onward, will continue investing time and effort in developing programming that appeals to different audiences of this generation.”

Birthright Israel has brought some 750,000 Jewish young adults from some 70 countries, on free trips Israel.

As part of the merger, Onward Israel will become a program within Birthright with its CEO, Ilan Wagner, becoming vice president of Onward programming at Birthright. Mark remains in his post at Birthright.

Onward Israel was launched in 2012 — the brainchild of Cindy Shapira — as a project of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The idea for Onward came to Shapira when her children were in college and their classmates were considering summer internships, including international summer internships.

“It just dawned on me, why not enable them to do that in Israel?” she said.

Onward offers programs for young adults to come to Israel for six to 10 weeks to live, work and study. Its goal has been to inspire and strengthen participants’ Jewish identity.

When Onward was first established, it had local partners in seven U.S. cities, but it has expanded over the years to have a presence “basically almost anywhere where there is a Jewish population of any size,” Shapira said. Local partners include Hillel campus chapters, Jewish Federations, Chabad and NOAM Olami.

Leadership at Onward had been discussing the possibility of a merger with Birthright for about a year, Shapira said.

“Merging with Birthright gives our program a much larger platform, access to all of the advantages that a larger infrastructure can bring in terms of marketing and staff and education,” said Shapira, who along with her husband, David Shapira, have remained deeply involved with Onward since its inception.

The most significant benefit of the merger, she said, is that it brings “an opportunity to change the paradigm for immersive experiences in Israel for young Jewish people in the United States and all over the world, and to really be able to send many more to Israel and to be able to affect their engagement with Israel and their Jewishness.”

Instead of two separate programs — which had been cooperating at some level for years — “now there’s a platform where you can take one experience or the other and make it a joint experience,” Shapira said. So, a student can participate on 10-day Birthright trip, and then “go on and have an eight-week program where you live in Israel, and get the real feel for what it’s like to live there and who the people are — an unvarnished opportunity to look at and talk about the issues, the pros and cons of what Israel is. That’s a whole new way of looking at immersive experiences.”

The Shapiras are taking active leadership roles in the newly merged organization; David Shapira is on the Birthright Foundation and Cindy Shapira is on the Birthright Planning Committee.

Seeing the success of Onward, amplified by its merger with Birthright, is “like a dream come true,” Cindy Shapira said. “How often do you have an idea, and it not only comes to fruition but in such a major way. I think it’s really cool.”

Onward’s success, she said, is owed to a myriad of people and organizations committed to its purpose.

Likewise, the merger of Onward with Birthright came to fruition through the efforts of many people and “several major Jewish foundations who gave significant intellectual capital and time to make it happen,” she said. “The entire professional and leadership team at Birthright has been phenomenally wonderful to work with. They are as excited about this for the Jewish people as we are. It was a real meeting of minds and strategic objectives of how we can help the Jewish people.”

While Birthright trips were on hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic, Birthright officials are hopeful that they will resume shortly for fully vaccinated and boosted young Jews. Some participants with Onward were able to travel to Israel in the last year because of the extended length of their programs.

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