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Birthright Israel: funding drops and fewer spots available for students

Layla Artzy went on Birthright’s website to register for a trip to Israel the first day applications opened and the site crashed. The next day, Artzy, a second-year student at Queen’s University, and the six friends that she applied with, received emails that they were on the waitlist. “We were so taken aback that we all applied and didn’t even get a spot even though we were on right away,” she said.

Artzy and her friends are not alone. At least 2,700 others received a message to join the waitlist for Birthright this summer. Birthright Canada had 720 spots for 3,420 applicants this summer, reaching its limits just two days after registration opened Jan 16. Previously, approximately 2,000 Canadian participants went on Birthright trips every year. This year, there are only 1,200 spots for the year.

Birthright Israel is the largest educational tourism organization in the world. Founded in 1999 by philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, Birthright offers free guided trips to Israel to young adults aged 18 to 26. This year, spaces are extremely limited due to a 30 percent rise in costs per participant as a result of inflation and funding cutbacks. 

Miriam Adelson and her late husband Sheldon Adelson, through the Adelson Family Foundation, have contributed nearly US$500 million to Birthright over the past 15 years, holding the title of Birthright Israel’s most generous donors. At the end of last year, Miriam Adelson announced the foundation is decreasing its annual commitment nearly in half this year and halving it again next year.

With this announcement, the US-based Birthright Israel Foundation made the decision to stop subsidizing Canadian participants. This means Birthright Israel Foundation in Canada (BRIFC) must now cover one-third of the cost, with the remainder coming from the Israeli government. The total cost for the trip is $6,000, according to the Canadian foundation.

“We consider this time in our program’s history as an opportunity to invite new Canadian donors and past donors to step up their support. This program has more than two decades of proven success, an entire generation impacted. We owe it to the next generation to provide the same opportunity,” said Chaia Berkowitz, director of BRIFC.

Berkowitz said the foundation is going to raise the additional funds by casting a wide net with an education campaign around the country. “Many people hear the name ‘Birthright’ and immediately think ‘free trip’ but it’s not free, it’s a fully subsidized gift and that gift comes with a cost which is where our foundation plays a pivotal role in securing the majority of the funding,” she said.

The goal is to get back to the pre-pandemic numbers. For now, these cuts will impact young Canadians looking to travel to Israel. “We are concerned that the recent cuts to Birthright will have a detrimental impact on our work, and the students we serve,” Jay Solomon, chief communications officer at Hillel Ontario, said in an email.

Jewish students who return from Birthright trips have a stronger tie to Israel and often form the core of Hillel’s student boards, he said. Hillel Ottawa director, Sasha Kathron, knows this well. “I told our students to get on the Birthright site and apply as soon as it opened,” she said. “Basically, the message is that if you can get on a trip, go!” said Kathron.

As for Artzy and her friends, they decided to skip the waitlist and try again for next summer. “Birthright is the kind of thing that as a kid everyone is like ‘of course you can go on Birthright’ and now it’s just not really like that anymore,” she said.

Samantha Goodman