It’s hard to think of today’s Jewish world without Birthright Israel.
Sending groups of young Jews to Israel for 10 days at no cost to them and letting the country work its magic on their Jewish identities seems like such a no-brainer that it can be a surprise to learn that Birthright has only been around since 1999. The consensus, and we share it, is that Birthright Israel is one of the most successful Jewish innovations of our time.
One way to judge how central Birthright has become to our North American Jewish core is by the howls that went up when it was learned that the Adelson Family Foundation was cutting back on its annual contribution. Since 2007, the Adelson Foundation has been the largest donor to Birthright, having contributed nearly $500 million over the past 15 years.
The announcement that the foundation would reduce its annual gift to $20 million this year and to $10 million next year was quickly followed by the announcement that Birthright was scaling back its operations by up to a third. Before the pandemic, Birthright was taking 45,000 participants to Israel every year. Next year, only 23,000 participants are projected.
Birthright officials acknowledge that the reduction in the Adelson Foundation gift is not a surprise. It has been in the works since 2016. Yet for whatever reason, Birthright has not been able to secure supplemental funding to make up for the shortfall they knew was coming. Instead, they cut back on the program. That is unfortunate. But perhaps this is the wake-up call needed to remind us of the importance of the program and to make clear why no one should take it for granted.
Last month, researchers at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University reported that in comparing Jews who had taken a Birthright trip with Jews who had never been to Israel, Birthright participants were 85% more likely to be “somewhat/very” attached to Israel and 160% more likely to have a spouse who is Jewish. Those statistics are compelling.
We urge efforts to expand communal and institutional support for Birthright. To be sure, despite the widespread belief that Birthright is funded by a few very wealthy Jews, the Birthright Foundation currently has nearly 40,000 annual donors. The Israeli government provides a large portion of Birthright’s estimated $150 million annual budget. And according to the 2018 annual report — the most recent available — 17 donors gave $1 million or more.
We recognize that there are aspects of the Birthright program that give some donors pause. For example, critics aren’t happy with how the program deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Still, even with its warts, Birthright is doing exactly what it was created to do and what the Jewish world has come to expect. Indeed, because of its success, Birthright has become an essential Jewish rite of passage almost on par with bar and bat mitzvahs.
Birthright deserves meaningfully expanded communal support.