Sharp Decline in Number of American Jews on Birthright Trips

Numbers are down as much as 50 percent in some cases, with providers speculating that disengagement with Israel among young U.S. Jews is part of the problem

Birthright participants during a tour of Tel Aviv in 2017.
Birthright / Erez Ozir

Birthright is experiencing a sharp drop in participation rates this current winter season, according to five providers who spoke to Haaretz. The downturn is mainly being felt in the United States, which is by far the largest provider of participants to the program that brings young Jewish adults on free trips to Israel.

According to some of Birthright’s key trip providers, who spoke to Haaretz on condition on anonymity, the drop ranges from 20 percent to 50 percent – depending on the provider – in comparison with the last winter season. The winter season extends from December through March.

Birthright has experienced drops in numbers before, especially during spates of terror attacks and violence in the region. But it seems a downturn of this magnitude, unrelated to the security situation, is unprecedented.

The trip providers told Haaretz they were not entirely sure of the reasons for the downturn, but offered several possible explanations.

One explanation was that because eligibility requirements have been loosened in recent years, young Jews feel less of a sense of urgency nowadays to register for the program. In the past, the program was open only to participants aged 18 to 26.  In a bid to expand the applicant pool, Birthright announced a few years ago that anyone up to the age of 32 would be eligible.

Trip providers have also speculated that the downturn could reflect the well-documented fact that young American Jews are growing increasingly disengaged from Israel, and have less and less interest in visiting the country – even when the trips are free.

Recent studies have shown that Jewish millennials, who are largely progressive, feel less connected to Israel than their parents and grandparents because they perceive the country's policies as antithetical to their values. In particular, they cite Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and of asylum seekers.

Last week, for instance, a petition signed by 1,500 Jewish students – demanding that Birthright include in its itinerary Palestinian speakers able to address the realities of occupation – was delivered to Hillel directors at over 30 campuses across the United States.

The petition was organized by J Street U, the campus affiliate of the pro-Israel, anti-occupation advocacy group. Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, is a major recruiter for Birthright.

“The exclusion of voices of Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel from Birthright runs counter to our core values,” the petition said. “On a trip to Israel, we should experience the country’s history and culture, but we should also learn about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and hear the voices of Palestinians living under occupation.” Last year, Birthright decided to discontinue these encounters, saying "further analysis of this module in the context of the educational trip as a whole" was required.

Last summer, left-wing activists organized several highly publicized walkouts on Birthright tours to protest what they described as the very one-sided approach of the program to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Birthright works with about 10 trip providers. Trip providers are required to recruit a certain quota of participants in order to maintain their status. If they fall below the quota two seasons in a row, they automatically lose their contract with Birthright. Last year, for example, the Reform movement lost its status as a trip provider because it failed to fill its quota.

Several trip providers expressed concern to Haaretz that because of the downturn in numbers experienced this winter, they were at risk of losing their contract with Birthright.

The organization, which was established in 1999, has already brought over 500,000 young Jews on trips to Israel. Birthright brought 48,000 participants to Israel in 2017, in what it said was a record year, following 45,000 participants in both 2015 and 2016.

Despite the current downturn, a spokeswoman for the organization said 2018 would be another record year.

Birthright did acknowledge to Haaretz, though, that its winter season figures were down. Asked how the organization could break a new record in 2018 despite this downturn and considering participation rates in the summer were unchanged, the spokesperson said the winter season extends from December through March. The downturn, therefore, would be mainly felt in 2019.

The Birthright spokewoman attributed the downturn to the fact that winter registration opened during the Jewish High Holy Days, “resulting in significantly fewer work days for our recruiters.

“While this affected numbers,” she added, “it was not indicative of our overwhelmingly successful year.”

Initial indications, the spokeswoman said, show that 2019 will be “another remarkable year.”