How Orthodox Groups Are Taking Over Birthright, and Using It to Target Young U.S. Jews

Religious indoctrination is strictly prohibited on Birthright trips to Israel, but what happens after the free tours end is another story

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FILE PHOTO: Participants enjoying their Birthright Israel trip.
FILE PHOTO: Participants enjoying their Birthright Israel trip.Credit: Taglit-Birthright
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

With winter break just around the corner, thousands of college students across North America are eagerly awaiting the free, 10-day trips to Israel they are entitled to as members of the Jewish tribe, organized by Birthright Israel.

But conspicuously absent from the list of travel agencies and organizations arranging this season’s visits is one of Birthright’s longtime trusted partners: the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in the United States.

A few weeks ago, the Reform movement was notified that it had been dropped as a certified trip provider for Birthright, despite having served in this capacity since Birthright was founded in 1999. It was not because Birthright had anything against the more progressive and pluralistic Judaism it promotes, Reform leaders were assured, but because it had failed to meet participant quotas.

“We worked very hard with them to increase the numbers, but unfortunately they could not meet our minimum and, from now on, they will have to send participants through other trip organizers,” Birthright CEO Gidi Mark told Haaretz.

He added that it was far more efficient for his organization to operate through a small number of large trip providers than a large number of small trip providers.

Birthright’s split with the Reform movement has not come out of the blue. Rather, it reflects a growing trend of recent years: Though the overwhelming majority of Birthright participants are not Orthodox Jews, Orthodox-affiliated trip providers account for a growing share of Birthright recruitment.

According to figures provided by Birthright, Orthodox Jews account for less than 5 percent of total participants, but Orthodox-affiliated trip providers now account for close to 25 percent of total recruitment.

And though the Reform movement will no longer provide trips for Birthright (which it did through a company known as URJ Kesher), about one out of every three participants still identifies as Reform.

In its early years, Birthright worked with a large group of trip providers – 33 – in North America. The list was consolidated over the years and now totals only 10, three of which are Orthodox organizations: Mayanot (affiliated with Chabad); Israel Free Spirit (affiliated with the Orthodox Union, Aish Hatorah and Meor); and Ezra World (affiliated with the Orthodox Ezra youth movement).

According to Birthright, its largest trip provider is an Israeli-based organization called Israel Outdoors (part of an organization called Tlalim). It refused, however, to provide a ranking of the others. Mayanot is widely believed to be second, with Israel Free Spirit not far behind. Ezra is considered one of the smaller trip providers and, unlike the other two, does not engage actively in Orthodox outreach work (also known as kiruv).

When asked to explain why the Orthodox organizations have become so dominant in the recruitment process, Mark said the question should be directed elsewhere. “You need to ask the participants who go with the other trip providers why they prefer them, and you need to ask the Reform movement – and the Conservative movement, which was also a trip provider until about 10 years ago – why they are not attracting enough participants.”

The Adelson effect

The original vision of Birthright was to provide unaffiliated young Jews with a greater sense of Jewish identity by bringing them to Israel. The organization has long stressed its commitment to Jewish pluralism and inclusivity, often citing the fact that it welcomes children of mixed marriages as well.

But the increasing dominance of Orthodox organizations in the Birthright recruitment process also happens to coincide with the emergence of Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson as a major figurehead in the organization.

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Sheldon Adelson, left with ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Yaakov Litzman attending a cornerstone-laying ceremony at Ariel University, July 2017.Credit: Idan Mizrahi

Birthright’s original big donors were Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, two philanthropists committed to Jewish pluralism. In recent years, though, they’ve gradually faded from the picture, leaving the playing field open to Adelson – currently Birthright’s single biggest donor. Although Adelson is not Orthodox, he shares ideological beliefs with many on the Israeli Orthodox right. Birthright officials and trip providers have long insisted, however, that he does not interfere with trip itineraries.

The Orthodox organizations can also thank the Israeli government for their growing prominence. Little more than a year ago, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry – run by the Orthodox, settler-aligned Habayit Hayehudi party – set up a $66 million initiative aimed at strengthening the religious identity of Jewish college students in the United States.

Coincidentally or not, two of the main beneficiaries of this initiative – known as Mosaic United – were Chabad and Olami (an organization affiliated with Aish Hatorah). Chabad and Aish Hatorah also happen to be affiliated with two of the top Birthright trip providers.

'Millions of Israeli tax dollars are being spent now on strengthening ultra-Orthodox institutions on campuses that bring Birthright travelers to Israel'

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, does not consider this a coincidence. “Millions of Israeli tax dollars are being spent now on strengthening ultra-Orthodox institutions on campuses that bring Birthright travelers to Israel,” he says. “When Birthright participants return from their trips with these providers, there are lots of efforts made to get them to explore a more traditional way of Judaism – and that is something that should not be ignored.”

Religious and political indoctrination is prohibited on Birthright trips. However, Orthodox rabbis do accompany groups traveling with Mayanot, Israel Free Spirit and Ezra World. Furthermore, those participating in Orthodox-sponsored trips are provided with the option of attending Orthodox services during their stay in Israel, but there is no option to attend pluralistic or egalitarian Shabbat services, as others offer. Still, there is little, if any, indication that real Jewish outreach work takes place on the trips themselves.

But as Jacobs suggests, what happens when the trips are over is an entirely different matter. For an extra $250, any Birthright participant can extend his or her stay in Israel for another four or five days on a program called Birthright Israel Plus. But there are much cheaper ways for participants to stay on, if they are willing to register through the Orthodox organizations.

Mayanot, for example, offers a three-week extension program at its Jerusalem-based yeshivas (separate ones for women and men) at an additional cost of just $99. Until last week, Israel Free Spirit promoted a long list of free, Orthodox-run extension programs, mostly at yeshivas. But following a report in Haaretz about one of these programs – at a Jerusalem hostel known as Heritage House, which encourages Birthright extenders to volunteer on illegal West Bank settlements – all the Orthodox programs on the list were removed from its website.

Brian, who asked that his real name not be published, was a Birthright extender who found himself being pushed into one-such program. After traveling to Israel with Israel Free Spirit a few years ago, he consulted with company representatives about options for extending his stay in the country. “I had just graduated college and was feeling out my next move,” recounts Brian, who lives in California.

Israel Free Spirit not only recommended that he stay at the Heritage House, but also made arrangements for his accommodations there. It was only when he arrived that Brian realized it was a men’s hostel run by a radical right-wing rabbi. “My alarm bells went off,” he says and he immediately sought another place to stay.

Israel Free Spirit did not respond to questions from Haaretz about whether it continues to promote these programs, and whether it engages in outreach work with participants after the Birthright trips. A senior official at Mayanot said he was not at liberty to answer any questions. As a matter of principle, Birthright does not allow its trip providers to address questions from the press and asks that they be forwarded to the organization’s headquarters.

Asked whether religious indoctrination takes place during Birthright trips, Mark told Haaretz: “We don’t allow this because we really believe in pluralism. We ask participants about it, too. We have our own monitoring company and are quite certain there is no preaching that goes on during the trips. From time to time, very, very rarely, we hear about something and we correct it. We are very strict about this.”

On the question of whether the Orthodox organizations engage in outreach work with participants after the trips, Mark said: “We are dealing with people who are very intelligent. They are all mature people older than 18. I myself never heard any one complaint about any misuse of the relationship by our trip organizers. Until now, we have never received a complaint about something like what you are saying.”

It is difficult to determine the effectiveness of Orthodox outreach efforts, which often continue on college campuses when participants return from their trips – now with the extra funding from the Israeli government through Mosaic United.

“From what we’ve seen in the social science world, the answer is that there’s some impact, but it’s tough to say,” says Matt Williams, a doctoral candidate at Stanford University who has researched Jewish outreach work extensively. “In the larger scheme of things, though, more American Jews are leaving the normative constellation of Jewish values that almost every survey puts at its core, and there’s an increasing distancing between young American Jews and Israel.”

Not ‘in-your-face’ Orthodoxy

According to Mark, Birthright will have brought a record number of 48,000 participants to Israel in 2017 – up 10 percent from last year. Since its foundation, the organization has brought over 500,000 Diaspora Jews to Israel, and another 100,000 Israelis have participated in “encounters” on the buses. Birthright is considered one of the most successful Jewish Diaspora projects of all time.

FILE PHOTO: Birthright participants arriving in Israel for the start of a 10-day trip.Credit: Taglit-Birthright

The organization views the number of participants as its main benchmark of success. Earlier in its history, it was relatively simple for it to break new records each year. But considering that the pool of eligible participants – Jews aged 18 to 26 – is rather finite in number, at some point it began encountering difficulties filling up its registration lists.

Hoping to keep the numbers up, Birthright responded several years ago by loosening up eligibility requirements (for example, by permitting young adults who had already visited Israel on other educational trips to come on a Birthright trip as well) and by weeding out those trip providers not successfully bringing in the numbers.

This naturally strengthened Orthodox outreach organizations like Chabad, Aish Hatorah and Meor, which already had a strong presence on U.S. college campuses. (The Reform and Conservative movements, by contrast, are hardly active among this demographic.) Even Hillel International – the largest Jewish campus organization in the world and also a trip provider for Birthright – finds it hard to compete with them.

“The Orthodox organizations are extremely good at relationship-building with the students,” observes a Reform rabbi who used to work as a Hillel director at a large university in the U.S. southeast. “They also have lots of money. When I used to have to scrape and borrow to make things happen at our campus Hillel house, it was often dumbfounding to me how easily Chabad could pull things off.”

Sources familiar with the Birthright recruitment process say one of the reasons the Orthodox organizations are so successful at bringing in large numbers of participants is that they tend not to be up-front about who they are.

Indeed, the websites of Mayanot and Israel Free Spirit look no different than those of the nondenominational trip providers, boasting many photos of young men and women showing lots of bare arms and legs. Understanding that these are Orthodox-affiliated trip providers often requires a much closer examination of the fine print.

As Jacobs notes: “I can tell you that 90 percent of the kids going on the Orthodox trips aren’t necessarily aware of what they are signing up for. All they see on these websites are young people who look like they’re straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement.”

Williams believes most students know what they are getting into, at least “on an abstract level.”

“But they absolutely miss how the ‘Torah-true’ orientation frames various aspects of the trip,” he says.

In recent conversations with Haaretz, several participants on Birthright trips sponsored by the Orthodox organizers confirmed this to be the case. (The participants asked to remain anonymous.)

The Orthodox trip providers are also much more aggressive when it comes to marketing. “They actually have student recruiters working for them who go around literally knocking on doors,” an adviser at another Hillel campus on the East Coast notes. “That’s not how the rest of us operate.”

Mayanot, for example, provides free return trips to Israel (or alternatively, $600 gift certificates) to participants who sign up 10 of their friends. Those who sign up five friends are eligible to participate in a $500 raffle. “How can I ever compete with that?” laments the former Hillel director.

Birthright co-founder Charles Bronfman in 2005. Urged the Reform movement to resist attempts by Orthodox organizations to take over Birthright in 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Giving up the fight

The writing has been on the wall for a while. Two years ago, Birthright co-founder Bronfman, known for his progressive views, urged the Reform movement to resist attempts by the Orthodox organizations to take over the recruitment process. Speaking to thousands of participants at the biennial conference of the URJ in Orlando, he said: “Who is the largest trip provider? Chabad. And who performs the most conversions? Chabad. And who provides the largest number of post-trip programs? Chabad. It seems to me it should be you, not Chabad.”

Yoav Schaefer, a former student member of Hillel International’s board of directors, attributes the dominancy of Orthodox organizations in the Birthright recruitment process to “the increasingly complicated relationship of the progressive Jewish movements – especially the Reform and Conservative – to Israel.”

By contrast, he notes, the Orthodox movements “remain steadfast in their support for Israel and the policies of the current Israeli government.”

He suggests that the progressive movements may have simply given up the fight. “The idea of Birthright, as it was imagined by the philanthropists who founded it, was to strengthen Jewish identity through an encounter with Israel,” says Schaefer, a co-founder of the Avi Schaefer Fund, an organization dedicated to empowering what it describes as young game-changers.

“Israel became the vehicle, as it were, for strengthening the identity of American – and Diaspora – Jewry. This was a very convenient solution for a community that was struggling to find ways to make Judaism appealing to those assimilating and intermarrying at an alarming rate. And this solution seemed to work, at least for a while.”

But as Israel becomes “an increasingly complicated and complicating” aspect of Jewish identity for many progressive Jews in America, Schaefer notes, “Jewish leaders are rethinking the Birthright model and its implications for both Jewishness and Israel.”

Jacobs admits as much. “You cannot have the religious authenticity of the majority of young American Jews questioned by the Israeli government and say it doesn’t affect how people think about traveling to Israel,” he says.

Birthright asked that the following statement accompany this story: “Since inception, Birthright Israel has welcomed participants from all denominational backgrounds and our goal is to reach as many eligible young adults as possible. Our operation is based on allowing trip organizers to handle recruiting, offering a wide array of trip options encouraging applicants to select trips based on their preference. We trust our participants to choose the trip and trip organizer that best suits their needs.”

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