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Birthright Israel program cuts back due to funding constraints

Birthright Israel will welcome 12,658 participants from US and Canada for its upcoming summer session, running from mid-May until September, which is 40 percent lower than last summer’s 18,358 participants. This problematic situation has become even more dramatic since the Israeli government hasn’t yet extended the contract with this organization, which is considered to be a joint venture between the government and the Jewish world. 

Birthright Israel is a gift of a 10-day educational tour of Israel, funded by Jewish philanthropists, the Israeli government and Jewish organizations around the world. It will welcome an additional 3,058 participants from 24 other countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Australia, France, Russia, England, Italy, Hungary, Germany and Ukraine.

In November, The Jerusalem Post revealed that due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as other factors, Birthright Israel’s budget has been cut, causing the organization to slash by up to a third the number of participants planned to take to Israel in 2023. Other reports mentioned that a budget cut by Dr. Miriam Adelson, the largest donor to Birthright Israel, is what caused this situation.

Birthright Israel announced last year that due to inflation and higher travel costs, it would cut the number of participants, but weren’t able to foresee that the number of participants cut would be more than a third. In 2018, the year with the highest participation rate, saw 48,000 Jews from around the world (mainly from North America) participate. Unfortunately, the pandemic cut off Birthright's trend of growing, as opposed to now, shrinking.

The impact of Birthright

This year, Birthright Israel will also welcome about 3,000 participants of Onward Israel, the leading mid-term internship program and the prestigious fellowship in business and technology. “We are excited to bring so many participants from around the world for life-changing programs to Israel in the coming months,” said Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark. “We are experiencing unprecedented demand in enrollment to Birthright. On top of the 16,000 participants for our classic 10-day trip, the 3,000 Onward participants and 60 Excel fellows we had expected to come this summer, we have a waiting list of 20,000 young Jewish adults from North America and around the world,” Mark said.

He explained the budget cuts and said that “the inflation that has hit much of the global economy and the rising costs of travel post-Covid, have driven up Birthright Israel’s expenses.” He added that “without offsetting donations, thousands of applicants in the future will be denied the chance, as were thousands this summer, to experience a Birthright Israel trip.”

Mark shared that he and his staff “feel terrible,” about limiting the amount of participants, “but we had no choice.” Mark added that “extensive research has revealed that young Jews have a significantly stronger connection to Israel and a far deeper Jewish identity following their participation than non-participants.”

Mark called Birthright “a winning formula for a vibrant Jewish future,” with participants “returning to their communities more educated about Israel, more involved in Jewish life, prouder of who they are as Jews.” He cited a recent Brandeis University analysis of Pew’s 2021 study that found Birthright participants to be substantially more likely to marry Jews and raise their children Jewish.

Nearly 60 percent of Jewish-communal professionals in the US are Birthright alumni, Mark said. “They feel part of their communities and tend to make up to 40 new Jewish and Israeli friends from their trip. Birthright is the key to ensure a stronger Jewish community,” he said.

An additional issue that Birthright Israel is dealing with these days is the fact that the Israeli government hasn’t yet extended the contract with them, which it has done historically since the establishment of Birthright in 1999. 

As published in March by the Post, two veteran outgoing members of the Birthright-Israel board of directors have sent an urgent letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asking him to interfere in what they called “saving Birthright Israel,” according to a letter that was obtained by the Post.

Prof. Aviad Hacohen, the president of the Sha'arei Mishpat Academic College and Yonatan Bassi who managed many government operations throughout the years said that “as [outgoing] public representatives on the board of directors on behalf of the Israeli government, since the establishment of the company before 23 years ago,” that “unfortunately and heartbreakingly, recently there has been a change for the worse in the government's attitude towards Birthright Israel,” they said in their letter.

“Apparently due to differences of opinion, and even though it has already been about four months since the establishment of the government, it has not yet been decided who will be the minister in charge of this project on behalf of the government.”

A senior Israeli official traveling with told the Post two months ago that the government supported the program and that there was no intention to constrict the program in any way, emphasizing that the program was "not in any danger." A second official explained that the Prime Minister's Office was in the middle of working on details to renew the contract.

Birthright Israel, considered to be one of the most successful and groundbreaking ventures in the past few decades, is now dealing with a situation it never experienced: Neglect from the Israeli government, challenges with fundraising and the fact that the Israeli economy is becoming more and more expensive. 

Zvika Klein