Birthright Israel, the free 10-day trip to the Jewish state for 18- to 26-year-olds, is a great project. It enables scores of people to visit Israel, many of whom would otherwise never have the opportunity.
Birthright is a well-run machine that translated a vision into an efficient organization. Participants in the program return exuberant, and a real buzz was created. Moreover, Birthright is a wonderful example of how private philanthropists can change the course of history and drag with them a sleepy and stagnant Jewish establishment.
So the question is not whether it’s appropriate that research about Birthright’s effect on participants is also funded by the same donors, which was the topic of Jewish Week Editor Gary Rosenblatt’s recent column headlined “Who’s To Say How Funders Spend Their Money?” I have only respect for my colleagues at Brandeis University who have given us access into a wealth of data and answers to questions about the Birthright experience.
The problem is that we’re not asking all the right questions. In my mind, there are two fundamental questions that are typically avoided. First, if the Jewish people can “afford” only one major global initiative at a time, aimed at strengthening the identity of the next generation of Jews, one that pools resources from private philanthropy, diaspora communities and the government of Israel, what should this initiative be? Related to this question are some others: Is Birthright the only and the best way to achieve the outcome and the impact needed? Were other alternatives considered? This is where a question such as the viability of the free trip would be considered.
There is a second question that should be asked today, now that Birthright has collected much data from its more than 200,000 participants: Given Birthright’s achievements and challenges after nearly 15 years, what should the project look like in the next phase, and what assumptions should be revisited? Related questions are: Does the trip need to change in light of lessons learned? What is the impact of new developments in technology and learning styles on the next generation of Birthright programs? How should the program reflect new trends in Jewish life and shifts in the notion of Jewish peoplehood?
Sadly, these questions are not being discussed in the public conversation.
Birthright was a labor of love for maverick philanthropists with great passion and healthy intuitions. Establishment groups like the Jewish Agency, as well as the government of Israel, were asleep at the wheel, so to speak, when Birthright was created. And aside from signing on to their financial commitment they did little to examine these questions from their own vantage points. In this vacuum it is no wonder that the philanthropists operated as the only real players. As we salute the philanthropists for their dedication and commitment, all the players need to (finally) sit around the table and come up with new and efficient planning, and operational and evaluative mechanisms to ensure that our young are best served.
Elan Ezrachi is a Jerusalem-based consultant to Jewish organizations and the former CEO of Masa – Israel Journey.