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Birthright CEO Responds: Orthodox Groups Are Not Taking Over Birthright

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

As the first employee of Birthright Israel and the one leading it today, I am deeply disturbed by the claim that "Orthodox Groups Are Taking Over Birthright."

Birthright Israel has now been in operation for 18 years, over the course of which we had welcomed 600,000 young Jewish adults - 500,000 from abroad and 100,000 Israelis - who experienced meaningful educational tours of Israel.

Birthright Israel’s vision has always been to create a program that rises above any political, religious or ideological persuasion, and whose purpose was to foster meaningful connections between young Jews world-wide and the State of Israel, Israeli society and the Jewish people, with its diverse character. This policy has never changed. 

Participants in Birthright's in Jerusalem,June 3, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman

Since its inception, Birthright Israel has worked under professional protocols and clear standards. The responsibility to recruit participants to Birthright Israel tours, rests on the shoulders of 'Trip Organizers', educational tourism companies and organizations. In order to qualify as such, Trip Organizers must meet strict marketing, operational and educational threshold requirements, which include the explicit prohibition of any kind of political and ideological affiliation.

Over the course of 18 years, Birthright Israel has pared back on the number of its Trip Organizers, regardless of their religious or ideological affiliation, in light of conclusions drawn by an extensive study, which determined that a reduction in the number of organizers would increase the efficiency of the organization. This decision yielded positive results indeed, and the number of Birthright Israel participants has grown steadily in recent years.

Today, Birthright Israel works with 12 Trip Organizers that meet all the threshold requirements we established. The number of participants that travel with each organizer is determined by their individual recruitment efforts, without any involvement from Birthright Israel, as was always the case.

Recently, the Union of Reform Judaism did not meet Birthright Israel’s recruitment requirements. Therefore, it will not continue to serve as a Trip Organizer, as did additional organizers from all denominations, Orthodox and others, over the years. Yet, the URJ resolved to continue recruiting for Birthright Israel in cooperation with other Trip Organizers in North America, out of conviction in its significant impact on young Jews.

At the same time, and regardless of the aforementioned issues, the percentage of participants arriving with Orthodox Trip Organizers has remained at a constant 19-20 percent, since 2010. In North America, specifically, that percentage grew from 22 to 24 percent. Does a one or two-percent rise in seven years constitute an "Orthodox take-over"?

Moreover, the percentage of Trip Organizers who affiliate themselves as Orthodox, out of the total number of organizers working with Birthright Israel, varied from 30 percent in 1999, to 34 percent in 2008 and 27 percent in 2017. Once again I ask, does this relatively stable ratio indicate an unprecedented Orthodox surge?

Gay Birthright participants on the beach in Tel Aviv. The participants were absolutely wild about the city, which some said reminded them of Miami.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Our ability to deal effectively and reliably with the challenges of the Jewish people in all its facets and its relation to Israel depends, first and foremost, on an uncompromising, unbiased professional competence. Our philanthropists and donors represent all political orientations, and they, like the government of Israel and the Jewish communities supporting Birthright Israel, are not involved with the educational content.

These days, Birthright Israel is concluding the biggest year in its history, with 48,000 participants world-wide and 9,000 Israelis who joined them. We are proud to be the most successful educational tourism venture in the world at large and in the Jewish world in particular.

Looking forward to the winter season, as with every season, we are excited to allow tens of thousands of additional young adults from around the world to connect with their Jewish identity, the State of Israel and the Jewish people, whichever way they see fit. We will continue providing every single possibility to do so, at their full disposal.

Gidi Mark is the international CEO of Birthright Israel

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