Working as a bouncer at an East Side bar with a predominantly black and Latino clientele, Michael Isaacs was surprised one night this fall to notice a predominantly Jewish crowd entering the club.
To show his "solidarity," Isaacs (a burly, chain-smoking Long Island native who recently completed a two-year stint as a combat medic in the U.S. Army) took out his chai pendant, the Jewish symbol of life.
Within minutes, a stranger with an Israeli accent approached Isaacs, 26, asking him if he was Jewish and if he wanted to go to Israel for free.
Isaacs, who describes his religious practice and knowledge as "sub-Reform," recalls saying, "You’ve got to be kidding. I’m from New York. Nothing’s free."
Nonetheless, despite a nagging suspicion that birthright israel, the program he was invited to participate in, was a scam, Isaacs accepted the offer.
Birthright israel, now entering its fourth year of offering free Israel trips for 18- to 26-year-olds, is hardly doing most of its recruiting outside Manhattan bars. But Isaacs’ story illustrates how creative and aggressive trip providers have had to become to get Americans to check out Israel at a time when headlines from the Middle East are almost universally discouraging.
When it launched its first trips in the winter of 1999-2000, birthright israel faced a radically different world. The American and Israeli economies were strong and Israeli-Palestinian peace appeared imminent. The program’s founding philanthropic partners, Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, saw Israel trips as a way of sparking Jewish interest among unaffiliated young Jews.
At first the program was plagued by skepticism among American and Israeli Jewish leaders. Could such a short trip accomplish anything? Would a participant value something that was completely free? Should a partnership of philanthropists, Jewish federations and the Israeli government be squandering money sending middle-class and rich kids to Israel when needs were so pressing at Jewish day schools and for various Israeli social service programs?
One thing that birthright had no difficulty with was recruiting. Word spread quickly of the free vacations, and most trip providers had to use lotteries and long waiting lists to pick 5,000 travelers from thousands more would-be participants, the majority of whom came from the United States.
After the first trips began returning with enthusiastic college students testifying that birthright changed their lives and inspired them to be more Jewish, the skepticism began to subside.
A few months later, it all came to a crash with the intifada. By winter 2000-2001, trips that had expected 10,000 students had depleted their 17,000-long wait lists to send less than 9,000.
Would birthright, the ambitious and expensive program that aimed to send more than 100,000 young Jews to Israel within five years, be unraveled by fears of suicide bombings?
Two years later, birthright israel is emerging somewhat battered, but surprisingly resilient, from the "matsav," the situation, as the Israelis refer to the Palestinian uprising. With far fewer American participants than initially planned for and strict security measures that have eliminated all free time from the itineraries, birthright israel is not exactly the same program its planners envisioned in the late 1990s.
Still, at a time when tourism to Israel is virtually moribund and teen trips there have all but vanished, it is worth noting that birthright has continued at all- and that no one has yet been injured on a trip.
Barring Iraqi attacks on Israel, by the end of February, birthright will have sent almost 8,000 people this winter. Since 1999, birthright has sent 36,590 people, approximately 19,000 from the United States.
Alumni, such as Michael Isaacs, continue to rave about the program, saying it has strengthened their connections to Judaism and Israel. In an unforeseen consequence, the program has gained considerable admiration from Israelis, who are heartened to see visitors, and a newfound respect from American Jewish leaders concerned that American students lack the knowledge (or connection to Israel) to equip them to defend the Jewish state against pro-Palestinian campus activists.
Marlene Post, North American chair of birthright israel, says that despite lower numbers than initially planned, birthright is still sending far more 18- to 26-year-olds to Israel than ever before, with a particularly strong showing from Europe, the former Soviet Union and Latin America. The decline in U.S. participation has opened up spots for more Jews from other countries, giving birthright much more of an international flavor.
"We have made awareness in the Jewish people that you can build amazing connections to Judaism and Israel in a 10-day trip," Post says. "It’s a great beginning."
The intifada clearly has left its mark on birthright. Participants no longer are allowed to wander alone around Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, although some alumni note that it is not unheard of for people to sneak out to bars at night. Itineraries are reviewed daily with government authorities, and each bus now has a global positioning system so that organizers can track where each group is at all times.
The security restrictions do not seem to faze most participants, however, and organizers insist that they have not been a total negative ó with less free time for bar hopping, groups sometimes bond better and have more time and energy for educational programming.
The lack of free time "took away from it to an extent, but not really that much," says Adam Morgenlender, a Cornell University senior who recently returned from a birthright trip run by Hillel.
"I would’ve liked to have some free time to do my own thing, like check out clubs in Tel Aviv or go out with the Israelis we met. But at the same time, it was fun."
Anecdotally, trip providers say birthright is attracting a slightly more affiliated crowd than in the beginning, with more people who have been to Israel before, but not (as birthright stipulates) on an educational peer trip.
Since the intifada, "we don’t have as many totally unaffiliated students who barely go to temple on Yom Kippur," observes Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner, director of the Lubavitch group, Mayanot, which is birthright’s second-largest trip provider.
"I would imagine today the vast majority identify themselves as Conservative and Orthodox," Rabbi Gestetner says. He is frustrated at not being able to reach less-affiliated people, but says, "My feeling is at this point bringing everyone to Israel is a great thing."
Keith Krivitzky, director of campus Israel services for Hillel, the largest trip provider, says that while the current participants have stronger Jewish backgrounds than some of their predecessors, they still have a lot to learn.
"They haven’t experienced what a good, vibrant, organic Jewish community can be like," he says.
Working with slightly more affiliated young people has its advantages, Krivitzky notes. "A large number who are coming now have some sort of Jewish or Israel connection. Whether or not they’re knowledgeable, there are more connections there, so when they go back hopefully it will stick a little more."
In addition to the different population, the trips, once focused largely on Jewish identity, now spend considerably more time discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"In the beginning we specifically did not focus on politics," says Krivitzky. "We would do one briefing or discussion in the course of 10 days and that’s it. We said it’s such a big can of worms, if we want this to be a Jewish journey, we don’t want it to be overshadowed.
"Now you can’t do that. Now people come here and it’s a huge issue you have to address," he says.
Recruitment, particularly of North Americans, has become far more labor intensive. Birthright has encouraged the development of themed and affinity-group trips (such as an upcoming one for Jewish camp counselors and one last summer for cyclists) as a way of enticing people who might not otherwise consider coming to Israel. Providers report that they have to spend considerable time talking to participants (and sometimes their parents) to allay concerns before the trip.
Even so, the program contends with a considerable dropoff of people who register for trips but then back out before the plane takes off. On Isaacs’ trip, for example, more than half of the registrants didn’t end up coming.
Simon Klarfeld, executive vice president of birthright’s North American operations and a vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, says birthright needs to focus on "how do we keep connected to those people once they’ve applied but before they go to assuage fears, get them excited, create community among them: it’s not just about getting them to register in the first place."
In some ways, say birthright officials, the programs have improved considerably since the first ones departed three years ago. For example, the "mifgash" component, in which participants interact with Israeli peers, has been expanded, so that many trips spend the 10 days traveling with Israelis, often soldiers.
"I think that qualitatively, birthright is better than expected," says Gidi Mark, birthright’s director of marketing. "It was a tiny baby when the intifada started and we can tell ourselves that if in hard times we brought a large number of participants, it’s proof that the Jewish world really needs us."
Steinhardt, one of birthright’s co-founders, echoes Mark, noting that "if there were no security issues, I think we’d have been hard pressed to serve" all the people interested in an Israel trip.
Asked if he would have started birthright if he had known the intifada would come, Steinhardt says, "Absolutely."
"That which has given me the most headaches has been not the intifada but the financing," he says, referring to difficulties getting the federation system to fulfill its commitment to fund almost one-third of birthright’s costs.
Steinhardt and other birthright officials say that conflict has been resolved favorably, although some lingering funding questions remain, such as whether funds intended for American participants should be spent on participants from other countries or set aside for later.
Intifada or no, birthright alumni like Isaacs (who now sports a yarmulke and is toying with the idea of volunteering for the Israel Defense Force) are urging other people to try the free trips.
"Put your fear aside," he says. "While it’s understandable, put it aside for a week. You couldn’t ask for a more secure trip."