It’s been hailed widely as a way to keep the younger generation of Jews in the fold, so to speak. And it’s been panned by some as a thin exercise in Jewish solidarity, long on party atmosphere and short on substance.
But one thing is for certain: Birthright Israel is shaping up to be is something of a philanthropic outlier.
At a time when fundraising by nonprofits continues to decline — the Jewish Federations of North America reported a $13 million drop last year compared with 2009 — contributors appear to be flocking to the new campaign launched by the Birthright Israel Foundation.
The number of donors has increased nearly four-fold — to 12,500 — as the campaign has begun reaching out to alumni and their parents over the last three years. The goal is to increase the number of annual Birthright Israel participants worldwide from 32,000 this year to 51,000 for 2013.
The program, begun in 1999, has sent nearly 300,000 youngsters 18-26 on a free 10-day trip to Israel. Major funding has come from a partnership of a small group of mega-donors, the Jewish federations and the government of Israel.
Outreach to alumni for funding may not be as fruitful as hoped, according to Leonard Saxe, director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies as well as its Steinhardt Social Research Institute. He co-authored a study examining the impact of Birthright Israel on alumni five to nine years after their visit and said he learned that “this generation has a different connection to money.
“They see it as necessary; however it is not a goal but rather a means,” Saxe explained. “They don’t want their relationship with the Jewish community to be defined in terms of money.”
Jesse Silver, 25, who is engaged to a woman he met on a Birthright Israel trip last summer, agreed that it is “a slow-moving process for people to not view Birthright as simply a free trip to Israel.”
But he said he has two friends who are doing a bike ride to raise money for Birthright.
“It’s an introduction to the Jewish community that one pays back over a lifetime of service either philanthropically or by getting involved in their Jewish community,” Silver said. “The cost of a trip is $3,000 per person, but over a lifetime that is a small portion of what they end up giving back. As they get older and more mature, they connect the dots a little more.”
Maxyne Finkelstein, the foundation’s chief operating officer, said the foundation primarily approaches alumni who are post-college age for a gift; the majority of participants are 18 and 19.
“We want to wait until they are working,” she said. “The $5,000 donor is terrific, but we also have a nice grass-roots campaign going from those who contribute $50 or $100. While the number of alumni donors continues to grow, this is not a major revenue source but rather provides an important opportunity for alumni and other young leaders to grow their philanthropic involvement in an initiative that is very important to them. Many have embraced this opportunity to ‘pay forward’ the gift they were given.”
She noted that the median gift from alumni last year was $36; the median gift from all donors was $100. Thus, the major gifts are still very much in need. The average gift last year was $3,779, and there were 94 gifts of $50,000 and above.
“We’re trying to focus on significant contributors and to develop a strong cohort of parents [of Birthright Israel attendees],” she said.
Finkelstein pointed out that the parents of a young man who was killed two years ago thought so much of their son’s Birthright Israel experience that they recently raised more than $2,000 for the foundation.
“They said it was the most important life experience their son had ever had,” she recalled.
At a foundation event here recently for major donors and alumni, Lenny Tanzer and his wife of Scarsdale said both of their daughters went on Birthright Israel trips and that they contributed to the foundation “to give back.”
“They never called to ask us to donate, but we thought we should because it is a wonderful organization and if we give it gives someone else the opportunity to go.”
Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of the American Jewish Committee, said Birthright Israel makes “a compelling statement at a time when the Jewish community is so worried about Jewish continuity. Birthright is saying nearly 300,000 have gone and we have long waiting lists, so if the Jewish community is so worried … money should not be the obstacle to ensuring Jewish continuity.
“The fact that Birthright has gotten the kind of numbers it has suggests that at the time when we feel continuity is in danger, this is the right message,” he added.
Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue here and former executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said he believes Jewish communal funds should be “devoted primarily to strengthening Jewish identity … and identity with Israel is in direct proportion to identity with Judaism.”
He called it the “key challenge for 21st-century American Jews.
“If in fact Birthright has been successful in instilling something permanent, then we should be able to see significant [gifts] from well-to-do Birthright alumni who become philanthropists,” Rabbi Hirsch said.
But he cautioned that there needs to be a “formalized partnership between Birthright and the central Jewish institutions that sustain Jewish identity” in order to maintain the excitement of Birthright through long-term affiliation.
When Birthright Israel began, it relied on Hillel and other organizations to recruit participants and conduct the trips. But the number of young people clamoring to go has reached such levels — 41,000 in North America applied in February but there are funds for only 25,000 — that the foundation began organizing community-sponsored buses. That allows local donors — individuals and federations — to commit to support a given number of spots to cut the waiting list in their community; the cost of the trips is shared with Birthright Israel.
“About 20 percent of our campaign total last year came from donor response to this initiative,” Finkelstein said.
The foundation has just created 10 regional councils of lay leaders across the country, along with alumni councils and a growing number of local groups. And it will be holding a VIP mission this summer for those adults who have donated at least $5,000 so they can experience a little of the trip for themselves.
Gideon Mark, CEO of Taglit-Birthright Israel, said there has been a “huge increase in demand in the U.S. and in other countries” and that his worldwide budget this year of $88 million must jump to $131 million in two years to handle the goal of 51,000 participants.
Asked about the fundraising to date of Birthright Israel, he noted that Taglit-Birthright Israel operates in 54 countries and offers tours in 30 languages. Therefore, Mark said, other fundraising efforts are under way in South America — especially Brazil and Argentina — and are just starting in Western Europe. All of these campaigns are critical because $100 million pledged by Israel over the next three years is a challenge grant that requires the organization to raise more than two dollars for every dollar Israel contributes, a total of nearly $240 million, Mark explained.