Twenty years ago, if you had told Charles Bronfman that more than half a million young Jewish people would go to Israel on a free ten-day trip that he helped conceive, he might have laughed at you. But Bronfman, one of the Jewish worlds best-known philanthropists and businessmen, wanted to create a program that would engage Diaspora Jewry with their roots, and provide the next generation of young Jews with a chance to not just learn about the Holy Land, but to truly experience it.
Together with co-founder Michael Steinhardt, he decided to launch a risky venture called Birthright Israel. It was the ultimate in venture philanthropy, Bronfman says today. We had no idea whether it would be successful or not.
Even the idea of what success would entail was different back then. At the time, Michael [Steinhardt] and I thought – though we didnt say it out loud – that if we could get 10,000 or 15,000 young adults on the program, that would be great, Bronfman says. We didnt even know how long it would last.
Fifteen years since its inception, Birthright has done more than just last. It has grown, flourished and expanded across the globe, and this year, in addition to marking its biggest summer season to date, it is also celebrating a major achievement: the 500,000th young participant who has come to Israel on Birthright, a figure that blows Bronfmans early hopes for the project completely out of the water.
Birthright has hosted participants from 66 different countries, reaching members of some of the Diasporas most far-flung Jewish communities, including those of India, Spain and New Zealand. There are national, campus and community based trips as well as niche trips for young people interested in the hi-tech or culinary scenes, arts and entertainment, extreme sports and so much more. Regardless of where they come from or what their specialized interests are, all participants continue to receive the same core gift that Bronfman dreamed of when he first designed the program: ten days in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people, learning, laughing and loving the country alongside fellow Diaspora Jews and young Israeli soldiers and students of the same age.
This is the most electrifying and most satisfying thing I have ever done with my life, Bronfman says of the program. And as for the major milestone of half a million participants, he says he never took Birthrights success for granted. Nobody would have dared to have the chutzpah to think of that kind of number, he says.
Changing a generation
Birthright Israel, says its international CEO Gidi Mark, was born out of the concern that rapid assimilation in the Diaspora was posing a real and present danger to Jewish life, and to young Diaspora Jews relationship with the State of Israel. Within a short 15 years, Birthright Israel has become the largest, most successful educational program in the Jewish world, Mark says.
To drive home his point, Mark lets the statistics do the talking: Birthright Israel cuts assimilation by half and doubles attachment to Israel. With over half a million participants, we impact a generation. Still, we also need to remember that we dont only touch the lives of 500,000 participants from 66 countries, he adds. We impact their families and the greater Jewish communities at large. In this way we are in fact not only making an impact on this entire generation but also creating a cross-generational effect, positively influencing the lives of both older and future generations.
Each trip is different and unique, but all of them, Mark says, have something crucial in common: their participants use the five little words this trip changed my life. Over the course of ten days, participants learn about their heritage, their Jewish identity and the State of Israel. From visits to Israels most beloved historical sites, to inhaling the smells and colors of its markets, hiking its iconic deserts and mountains, and enjoying its incredible nightlife, they not only experience Israel firsthand, they make a space for it within their consciousness, and when they head home after a week and a half, that newfound space travels with them. Israel becomes a relevant integral part of their daily lives – something they didnt consider beforehand, Mark says.
In order to stay relevant and continue to grow over the course of a decade and a half, Birthright has kept a sharp focus on constantly innovating and evolving. I remember my Dad saying to me that a companys brand either goes up or down, and if you stay the same, you will go down because somebody else will beat you, Bronfman says with a laugh. And I think the management at Birthright has successfully improved the trips every single year.
Mark agrees. We need to be innovative in order to stay relevant. Within 15 short years, we have managed to increase the number of young Jewish adults visiting Israel from 2,000 to 45,000 annually. In terms of programs, we are constantly introducing new and exciting trips. For instance, this coming winter we are launching a special program called Birthright Israel Academic which grants up to three college credits for a 13-day academic experience in Israel, Mark explains. This gives us the opportunity to reach out to a wider audience who otherwise may not have taken the initiative to sign up for a regular Birthright trip.
Devoted donor base
The fully subsidized trips are made possible by an intricate web of partnerships between the government of Israel, generous philanthropists, individual donors and Jewish communities around the world – represented by the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency for Israel and Keren Hayesod. A crucial component of that web is a devoted donor base, comprised of 32,000 generous individuals and foundations across the US, all making annual gifts ranging from $18 to multiple millions of dollars.
We are dedicated to providing the gift of a ten-day peer educational trip to every Jewish young adult, affirms David Fisher, president of the Birthright Israel Foundation. We believe that with every gift, we are not only changing young Jewish lives, but the collective Jewish future.
Birthright is blessed with generous support from several extremely generous donors, including Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, but Fisher says its important that smaller donors remember that every single dollar plays a critical role. Raising money will always be a hurdle. With so many organizations out there for our donors to give their time, energy and money to, we must clearly make our case for their support, he adds. We are often hit with the misconception that Birthright Israel is funded by a few mega donors so small donations dont make a difference, but every single dollar counts. Birthright Israel is about creating a strong and secure Jewish future for all of us.
In addition to polished social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram and vigorous recruitment campaigns across college campuses, Birthrights marketing team also understands that sometimes there is nothing more powerful than a referral from a trusted friend. Our target audience has changed in the past 15 years, mainly due to technology, the rise of the sharing community and need for personalization. Although the Birthright Israel trip is free, travel opportunities for our audience evolved dramatically, making their spare time more valuable. Our main focus in our marketing and recruitment efforts is to emphasize the opportunity of self-discovery, lifelong friendships, Israeli culture and a truly life-changing adventure. We also invest in the power of our massive alumni community to share their experience through social media and help spread the word, Mark adds.
Next on the horizon? A new website with an innovative marketplace to personalize a trip and a new app that begins engagement on the bus in Israel and continues, Birthrights management hopes, over a lifetime – a lofty goal that they feel can be best achieved through long-lasting connections.
The Birthright Israel Foundation is also developing a new post-trip engagement plan, which Fisher calls a digital bridge, one that will connect alumni to one another and allow them to meet in a space they are comfortable with, while providing them with meaningful opportunities to engage with our community after they return.
With so many achievements in only 15 years, and so many exciting plans for the future, its no wonder that Charles Bronfman remains thrilled at Birthrights stunning success. There have been so many milestones, he says. I remember when we had our 100,000th participant. And I sure as heck hope that Michael [Steinhardt] and I will be here to welcome number 1 million.
Business leadership program for young professionals
Birthright Israel also runs a flagship leadership program called Birthright Israel Excel. Currently celebrating five years since its inception, Excel continues to flourish and grow along with its active and impressive alumni network. Birthright Israel Excel is the most prestigious business leadership framework for young students and professionals in the Jewish world today, says Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark.
For some exceptional young Jewish people, business and community ties with Israel are a priority in their professional and personal development. It is with them in mind that Birthright designed the life-long fellowship program – Birthright Israel Excel. Rather than spending ten days in Israel, Excel fellows spend ten incredible weeks in Israel working in specialized internships with prominent Israeli companies involved in the international market. For outstanding Jewish college students pursuing careers in either business or technology, the program is a wonderful opportunity to strengthen personal connections to the land of Israel while gaining a foothold in its vibrant, globally recognized high-tech and commercial sector.
Through the course of the program, fellows work hand in hand with leaders in Israeli commerce, learning from the best about the global economy, geopolitics, leadership and the crucial issues of Jewish identity in the business world. They benefit from personal mentorships and connections to Israeli peers, and when they return they immediately have access to a vibrant alumni network across both the U.S. and Israel.
Programming at Excel is designed to foment a deep ethical connection to business leadership, Jewish leadership and social responsibility, all with an eye toward the economic ties between Israel and the U.S. and the responsibilities of Jewish values when it comes to the global marketplace. Excel continues beyond the ten weeks in Israel: alumni attend regular meetings and workshops with business and tech leaders, so that Excel fellows are ideally positioned to lead their Jewish and business communities into a brighter, more engaged future.
For more information about Birthright Israel, go to www.birthrightisrael.com.