Melissa and her American friends who were lampooned on the TV satire “A Wonderful Country” a few years ago sure made Israelis laugh. The butt of the joke was Taglit-Birthright, the program designed to strengthen young Diaspora Jews’ connection to Israel.
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But Birthright isn’t just a subject for parody – it’s a money spinner for the Israeli economy. Birthright indirectly contributes hundreds of millions of shekels to the economy each year.
“For the public and the State of Israel this is an excellent investment,” says Birthright CEO Gidi Mark. “According to a study by Ernst & Young, Taglit’s contribution to the economy from its establishment in 2000 until 2012, after deducting government funding, is 2.6 billion shekels” – $749 million.
The state covers about a quarter of Birthright’s operating budget. In 2012, such funding totaled around 120 million shekels out of a budget of 420 million shekels.
The 120 million marked an increase from 83 million shekels in 2011 and 62 million in 2010. Most of the budget comes from donors, mainly from American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, the owners of the free daily Israel Hayom.
According to Ernst & Young, Birthright will be bringing in even more money in the future. Birthright’s total contribution to the economy between 2013 and 2020 is forecast at 4.6 billion shekels, based on an expected 3% annual increase in the number of the program’s participants.
For the stats on Birthright’s direct contribution to the Israeli economy, Ernst & Young cites expenses for outlays such as food and board, transportation, entrance fees to sites, counselors and security. The study also examines other contributions like spending by young people who extend their stay, and after-hours expenses on transportation, food, drink, gifts and souvenirs.
So it’s no wonder there’s interest abroad in the model that Birthright developed in Israel. “Taglit is the most well-developed model in the area of homeland tourism,” Mark says.
“We receive requests from countries such as Armenia, Greece, Bulgaria and Ireland, which are beginning to recognize the potential of the connection between the diaspora and the mother country. Wherever I go they tell me: ‘Why shouldn’t we start it here?’”
Boosting the outskirts, too
Birthright’s operations in Israel bolster the tourism industry, of course, a valuable asset during slow seasons. Mark says Birthright is responsible for about 5% of group tourism in Israel and 9% of hotel occupancies.
Meanwhile, at least six out of 10 days of the program take place in the country’s outskirts, which could sure use the business. Rural hospitality sites and youth hostels are among the businesses benefiting.
“We’re responsible for the fact that the level of youth hostels in Israel has improved in the past decade. We’ve set a high threshold compared to what was customary for trips by young people to Israel. We wanted Israel to be presented as a modern country,” says Mark.
“We made a rule of no more than three people to a room, and of course the rooms must have air conditioning and a bathroom. We also try to bring the participants over during the slow seasons because the prices are lower and the hotels benefit from the occupancy.”
In addition, according to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, there are sites where Birthright participants make up the lion’s share of visits. In Nahal Yehudia and Nahal Zavitan in the north about 54% of visits are by Birthrighters, while in Ein Ovdat in the south the percentage is 37%. On the Salad Trail in the Besor region the number is 68%; at Mount Arbel near Tiberias it’s 31%.
Birthright brings in young Jews from all over the world aged 18 to 26 for a free 10-day educational tour. They visit sites with Israelis their age, most of them soldiers. The goal is to create a network of worldwide support for Israel; to strengthen both the connection to Judaism and the connection to Israel.
“We’re in a race against time because assimilation is constantly on the increase,” says Mark. “Jewish young people are very far removed from Israel and pride in the country. Many are embarrassed; they don’t express their opinion of Israel on campus because they don’t feel close to Israel.”
Birthright, meanwhile, generates return tourism because participants form personal ties with Israelis who host them during the trip. Some 20% of participants return to Israel at least once in the first five years after taking the program, and some 25% extend their visit at the end of the program.
“They come with a certain level of fear, and within a few days they connect to people in Israel; in many cases to the soldiers who accompany them during the tour. And they extend their stays in Israel,” says Mark.
“There are 8,000 soldiers a year taking part in the tours; they’re the ones who create a long-term connection for the participants, not only to Israel, but to Israelis, and provide the incentive to return. It’s not only on a tourism basis, there’s also the beginning of business ties here.”
Shooting for 50,000
Last year Birthright brought a particularly large number of young Jews to Israel: 43,000. This year the group is looking to top 50,000.
So last month the organization embarked on its largest campaign ever, at an investment of hundreds of thousands of shekels. The campaign will include more than 130 college campuses in the United States and also target young Jews who don’t even define themselves as Jews.
“We see campuses with 5,000 Jewish students, but only 300 to 400 of them have been on Taglit,” says Mark. “We have the chance to increase the numbers by 90%. The idea is to make noise on campuses and tell people: ‘Are you a Jew? Come to Israel.’”
Although the idea is to reinforce the Jewish connection, the marketing approach this time will stress that Israel is a young and lively place, so it’s a missed opportunity not to visit.
“The campaign will be in the same guerrilla marketing style we used at the beginning: playing Israeli music on campus, distributing postcards and gifts to students,” says Mark. “All over campus we’ll create interest that will attract people to areas where our salespeople are.”
It sounds simple: Offer a trip abroad to young people. But many students don't jump at the chance.
“It’s not at all simple. A high percentage of those who come in the end don’t even see themselves as Jews. They don’t live in a Jewish environment, so they have no awareness of Israel,” says Mark.
“Not every free trip will get them to come, especially among students who have joined the workforce and have only five or six extra vacation days a year. The negative coverage of Israel doesn’t help either.”
Today Birthright is looking for ways to increase the number of participants. It’s dropping the rule that people who have been on an organized trip when they were 18 to 26 can’t go on Birthright.
Also, the group is trying to increase the number of participants among French Jews by allocating special marketing and research budgets for France. It’s also establishing a European administration expected to increase the number of participants from Europe as a whole. To date, 69% of participants in the program have come from the United States.