Last month, Rebecca Klyman, a West Chester University junior, left for Israel on Birthright, leaving a few Jewish friends behind.
Her friends were naturally disappointed they couldn’t go on the trip with Klyman after years of anticipation. One of her lifelong friends ended their friendship after Klyman decided to go on the Birthright trip without her.
“You just looked forward to it growing up because you care about Birthright. … It’s just really heartbreaking to not be able to go, especially when your other friends get to go, but you can’t,” Klyman said.
The heartbreak was caused by West Chester’s decreased Birthright capacity, a result of Birthright Israel scaling back its number of free trips for Jewish young adults by a third. This year, the organization is expected to accommodate 23,500 participants, compared to 35,000 in 2022 and 45,000 pre-COVID, JTA.org reported in November after Birthright announced the scale back.
Rabbi Jeremy Winaker, executive director of Greater Philly Hillel Network, which oversees Hillels at West Chester, Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, Villanova University and St. Joseph’s University, has already noticed the effects. Oftentimes, Hillels partner with organizations offering Birthright to provide the experience to college students.
“Every Hillel has seen a reduction in the number of seats available to send students on Birthright,” he said.
Because of the reduced spots available, Greater Philly Hillel attendees of last month’s Birthright trip shared their bus with students from Muhlenberg College, Franklin & Marshall College, Lehigh University and Bucknell University.
University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel experienced similar summer cuts, from two buses holding 40 students each, to one bus, with another opportunity for Birthright in the winter. Penn Hillel’s Birthright summer attendance went from 80 students to 40, according to Penn Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Gabe Greenberg. About 90 students expressed interest in the trip.
The scale back has forced Hillels to think more critically about the students selected to attend Birthright.
“For us now, having a much tighter cap on who we can accept, it’s pushing us to think more critically about, OK, who will benefit most from this trip?” Greenberg said.
Penn Hillel is more likely to accept students who weren’t previously engaged in Hillel or Jewish life. Students who attended Jewish day school or Jewish summer camps had a reduced chance of getting a spot on the trip.
“Penn Hillel views Birthright as one important tool in developing a student in their Jewish journey into adulthood,” Greenberg said. “And so students who are already regulars at Hillel, and are involved in our programming already in a variety of ways, Birthright might be less of a needed tool to continue to inspire and help them grow Jewishly.”
Prioritizing less engaged students has been beneficial. Winaker said that on Greater Philly Hillel’s recent Birthright trips, students from the hodgepodge of Pennsylvania schools met new friends, who they continue to keep in touch with.
Hailey Roffman, a West Chester senior who attended the summer trip said that she enjoyed getting to meet students from neighboring colleges.
“My cousin actually goes to Bucknell and was on our trip, so it was really special getting to share that with him and meet his friends and just build connections,” she said.
Before the trip, Roffman attended an occasional Shabbat dinner or bagel brunch at Hillel but plans to become more involved in the coming year.
Hillels are looking for other ways to both bolster engagement and work around the scale back. Last year, Penn Hillel funded a trip to Israel and the United Arab Emirates for 22 Jewish and non-Jewish students. Greenberg plans to offer the same program next year.
Penn Hillel offers trips to Germany and is hoping to expand opportunities for spring break trips to travel domestically, partnering with Penn’s Greenfield Intercultural Center to take students to Alabama and Mississippi to learn about the civil rights movement.
Greenberg is also looking for alternative funding sources for Israel trips.
Greater Philly Hillel is adapting its programming to compensate for the scale back. About a decade ago, Hillels had to waitlist several students for Birthright trips, Winaker remembered.
“It allowed Hillel on campus to engage those students earlier in their college careers and to have more robust Jewish life on campus leading into a Birthright trip,” he said. “We’re going to see that same kind of waitlist approach for the time to come or for the foreseeable future.”
Winaker hopes that Greater Philly Hillels can offer students internships and early career opportunities in Israel for students unable to go on Birthright, “helping to promote this deeper and more enriching experience than a 10-day tour.”