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Birthright faces new challenges
After convincing the skeptics, Birthright faces new challenges
By JULIE WIENER
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
January 16, 2001
JERUSALEM Birthright Israel, the splashy and
international partnership to
bring young people on identity-strengthening Israel trips, has had to prove
itself quite a few times.
When Birthright was first announced, many Jewish leaders suggested the
money pledged to the program
could be better spent on things like day schools, questioned the value of a
10-day trip to Israel and wondered
whether participants would take seriously something that was free.
However, as the first wave of participants returned last winter gushing
about their ``life-changing"
experiences, and a Brandeis study found a powerful short-term impact on
Jewish identity, Birthright's skeptics were
largely won over. Jewish federations, the Israeli government and 14
individual donors pledged large sums of money,
bringing the program's total 5-year budget to almost $210 million.
Still, with a host of new challenges on the horizon, Birthright --
as Taglit, or ``Discovery," in
Hebrew -- will have a lot more proving to do. The following issues will be
closely watched in coming months and
* Future financial viability. Philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and
Charles Bronfman, Birthright's
founders, announced recently that they will end their support for the
in five years, expecting that new donors
and institutions will step in. Funding from Birthright's other major
-- Jewish federations and the Israeli
government -- is by no means guaranteed indefinitely.
* How many trip providers should be used, and to what extent Birthright
should offer a consistent
experience regardless of provider. Last year, 10 programs provided trips
under Birthright auspices. This winter, 30
programs are running trips, and their policies and goals vary. Birthright
leaders say they are closely monitoring for
``quality control" and are using the current batch of trips to test which
programs to use in the long term.
* Follow-up engagement. Birthright and the federation system began
providing grants for post-trip
programs this year. Several trip providers, like Hillel: The Foundation for
Jewish Campus Life, have invested
considerable personnel to stay in contact with alumni and encourage them to
continue the ``Jewish journeys"
spurred by Birthright. It remains to be seen whether alumni will receive as
much attention as Birthright grows.
* The trip's long-term impact. With Birthright still in its infancy,
pronouncements about its long-term
effects on Jewish life are speculation. However, Birthright plans to
commissioning detailed studies from
Brandeis University's Cohen Center for Jewish Studies, and is exploring the
possibility of longitudinal studies that
compare Birthright participants to other young Jews.
While many people believe Hillel and Birthright are synonymous, Hillel
-- the network of Jewish student
organizations -- is simply the largest of some 30 trip providers. The
providers include both nonprofit and for-profit,
Israeli and North American, secular and Orthodox groups. Their policies and
approaches vary widely, from Aish
HaTorah, an Orthodox outreach group, to the Society for the Protection of
Nature in Israel.
Although all providers must adhere to certain guidelines, particularly
about security, providers have
differing alcohol policies, rules and tones. In the past week, while
participants in a Jewish Community Centers
Association trip watched the raunchy teen comedy movie ``American Pie" on
bus ride home from the Dead Sea,
male and female participants on Mayanot -- the Lubavitch program -- were
forbidden from dancing together at
With Israel and the Palestinian territories rocked by violence this
winter, many wondered whether
Birthright would be able to operate. In the end, despite thousands of
dropouts, mostly from the United States,
Birthright is bringing more young people than last year: between 8,000 and
9,000, of whom 6,000 are American.
This year's participants have been guinea pigs to some extent, and
Birthright officials say they have
brought in outside evaluators -- the Cohen center and Israeli researchers --
to determine which providers to keep in
the future and which to toss out.
``Based on the evaluations, next year we'll weed out the worst ones,"
says Gideon Mark, Birthright's
director of marketing and development.
Providers, who are uncertain about their future with Birthright, have
been doing a fair amount of carping.
The North American groups -- particularly Hillel and Chabad, which have a
presence on most major university
campuses -- are asking whether the Israeli providers can offer meaningful
In the process, questions are being raised about Birthright's basic
goal: Is it to promote a love of Israel, a
commitment to Jewish observance or something else? How much of the trip
should be structured and educational,
and how much allowed for personal reflection and relaxation?
At the same time, as many providers report staff and overhead expenses
beyond the funds allocated by
Birthright, groups like Hillel are wondering whether it makes sense to
continue in the Birthright business or instead
seek to position themselves as follow-up providers.
The Hillel trips are credited with building a sense of community, and
forging relationships between Hillel
staff and students that later are developed on campus. But they also drain
resources from Hillel's other work.
``I want to make sure I'm not leading my movement down a siren's path
something that seems right, but
in the long term isn't right," Richard Joel, Hillel's president, said in a
recent interview with JTA.
Although Hillel has no plans to drop its involvement in Birthright,
said he wants to evaluate the issue
``We have limited resources and are spreading them very thin by
so much to Birthright," he said.
``I need something more than my own kishkes telling me there's a quantum
added value by our institution being
involved as the primary organizing force.''
Julie Wiener recently traveled to Israel on a trip paid for by
© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.