They Must Be Doing Something Right

Three weeks ago, a group of 40 Canadians in their late teens and early twenties sat sprawled on the lawn outside the President's Residence in Jerusalem. They were waiting for Shimon Peres to come out and light a torch, which would then be taken around the country, to various national heritage sites.

A flustered woman came up to one of the group leaders and introduced herself as the president's events coordinator.

"It's a scandal the way you've brought these kids," she said in a shrill voice. "Why are all the girls wearing shorts? And just look at that one, with all the tattoos on her legs and arms. What were you thinking, bringing them to meet the president dressed like this?"

A few moments later, Peres was out, and despite being immaculately dressed in a suit and tie, he did not seem taken aback in the least by his guests' more casual attire. On the contrary, he was in his element - joking and laughing, posing for private snapshots, telling anecdotes about David Ben-Gurion, obviously relishing the informal atmosphere. The flustered aide looked on forlornly from the sidelines as Peres allowed himself to be stage-managed by the organizers from Taglit-birthright Israel, who were using the event to produce yet another promotional video for their project.

"Birthright, it's a nice idea with great PR, bringing lots of teenagers here for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, but it's not really a serious program," said a senior Jewish Agency official, who will have to remain unnamed.

"Birthright is a travesty," chimed in a senior official from a Zionist organization in one of the largest Jewish communities in the West.

"Money that could go for education or welfare is instead being used to pay for trips to Israel for thousands of children of wealthy parents, who could easily afford to send them themselves. Meanwhile, much more important programs are withering on the vine for lack of funding."

"Birthright is great while it lasts," said the executive director of an American Jewish federation. "But after 10 days of an intense experience in Israel, they go home, back to their lives, and we lose touch with them."

Muffled criticism

Criticism such as this is rife, but you seldom hear it openly. Over its eight years of existence, birthright, which has brought 160,000 young Jews from around the world on 10-day visits to Israel, has entered the consensus. It has the numbers; the biggest donors are on board; and both Israeli and Diaspora Jewish leaders line up to make speeches at its impressive mega-events.

Yet still, the doubt lingers: What kind of return has the Jewish people been getting on the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars and all this hype?

Last week, birthright's steering committee named Gidi Mark, the organization's international marketing director, as its new executive director, replacing its founding father, Dr. Shimshon Shoshani. Mark's appointment was preceded by long months of horse-trading and a greater than usual amount of skulduggery, which only go to prove the importance birthright has attained. This changing of the guard should be used as an opportunity to try to assess its contribution.

It's a matter of jealousy

Birthright's backers have answers for the critics. They accuse the Jewish Agency and other large and established mega-organizations of jealousy.

"They can't bear to see a young, small, independent operation transforming itself into a superstar," said one of birthright's executives. "Basically, they can't deal with the fact that they didn't think of the idea."

Birthright has commissioned studies which prove that its alumni go home with their Jewish identity and connection to Israel greatly enhanced. Post-birthright initiatives are beginning to spring up around the world, financed, among others, by one of the program's original founders and sponsors, Michael Steinhardt. But there is still a sense that the efforts to take birthright to the next stage lack focus.

Perhaps part of the problem is that there is no consensus about what birthright's main aim should be.

Yossi Beilin, whose brainchild it originally was, saw it as a vehicle for increasing Diaspora Jews' identification with Israel and battling assimilation.

Other Israeli politicians talk about birthright as a way of encouraging immigration to Israel - a perception the organization itself fosters by airing radio spots with alumni who later moved here.

Some of the original American founders hoped that it would enhance the younger generation's affiliation with local Jewish communities.

And its latest partner, casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson (who is also, to date, its largest donor, with $60 million), talks incessantly about encouraging participants to meet other young Jews, settle down with them and have kids.

Birthright might prove to be a means to all these ends. But with its oldest alumni at most in their early thirties, it is too early to draw any serious conclusions about its effectiveness.

Nevertheless, birthright can already claim to be a success story, even before the long-term results are known. It has shown the rest of the establishment how a major project, affecting tens of thousands each year, can be built in a short time, using a small, dedicated team with little overhead.

No wonder the big organizations are so envious.

It has also encouraged discussion about new forms of connection and Jewish identity. And it has inspired other nations to create copycat versions for their own diasporas - including the Armenians, the Palestinians and the ultra-Orthodox, who dislike the decidedly secular fashion of birthright. So they must be doing something right.

More Jewish World news and features

More Jewish World stories on birthright:

  • Does Birthright deliver? By Alison Avigayil Ramer
  • U.S. billionaire Adelson pledges $60 million to Birthright program By Anshel Pfeffer
  • Birthright participant turns pro-Palestinian activistBy Annette Young
  • 'Birthright' tours pose Jewish identity questions for IDF troopsBy Amiram Barkat
  • Russian Jews say 'Da' to Birthright, but 'Nyet' to aliyahBy Anshel Pfeffer