It’s the flip side of the Birthright Israel success story.
With the summer travel season fast approaching, providers of Israel programs for teenagers are bracing themselves for what several say could be a season of historically low travel for a year unaffected by major security concerns.
While Israel travel among 18-26-year-olds, the age cohort eligible for free Birthright trips, has increased dramatically since the program’s launch —with 20,500 North Americans, a record number, going this summer alone just on Birthright —teen Israel travel has seen a dramatic falloff.
Leaders of several North American teen programs say they have seen drops of 30 percent to 50 percent in participation in their Israel trips since 2000, a figure consistent with the findings of two recent studies.
A 2010 report by Elan Ezrachi, a fellow at the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education, found that the overall number of 13- to 18 year-olds traveling to Israel from around the world dropped from a record 20,000 in 2000, the year of Birthright’s founding, to 12,000 in 2009. Ezrachi said approximately half of those participants are North Americans.
Though leaders of teen programs acknowledge the role of Middle East violence during the second intifada and the 2007 financial crisis in depressing participation, they point to one central cause of the decline: Birthright.
Founded to counter the decline in Israel attachment and Jewish identity among North American Jews, Birthright has brought hundreds of thousands of Jewish young adults to Israel on the 10-day trips.
Yet the promise of a free Israel trip seems to have discouraged thousands of parents who might otherwise have sent their teens on Israel travel programs from doing so.
“Birthright is an extraordinary experience,” said Paul Reichenbach, the director of Union for Reform Judaism’s Camping and Israel Programs. “We’re a big supporter of it. Yet at the same time it’s made it difficult for sponsors of high school trips to get traction.”
Sending kids on a costly multi-week Israel summer trip in high school is a tough sell when there’s a free trip in the offing a year or two down the road.
“Given the choice of spending $7,000 or $8,000 on a two-week trip or nothing on a 10-day trip,” Reichenbach said, “it’s a no-brainer.”
Leonard Saxe, director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies who has done extensive research on Birthright, acknowledged that some programs have taken a hit, but noted that the overall numbers of teens traveling to Israel may have risen — particularly if one includes the Poland-Israel March of the Living trip, which the two studies did not.
Several academics said the move away from longer term high-school travel is detrimental. Experiencing Israel as an adolescent rather than as a young adult, Ezrachi said, has a greater impact. Proponents of teen travel have offered a number of ways to level the playing field, including distributing philanthropic dollars more equally between trips for adolescents and young adults, or creating an Israel voucher that could be used for any number of travel options.