20 Years of Birthright Israel

Photo courtesy Taglit Birthright Israel; eJP archives.

By Gidi Mark

In 1998, I became the first employee of Birthright Israel. At the time, Birthright was an ambitious pipe dream aimed at combating the danger of a declining Jewish future. To this day, I vividly remember waiting in anticipation alongside government officials, our founders, philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, our visionary Dr. Yossi Beilin and our CEO Dr. Shimshon Shoshani at Ben Gurion airport for the first Birthright Israel flight from New York. At that moment, the co-founders and I never envisioned the project would grow to become the most significant organization in the world for the Jewish diaspora.

Two decades later, I reflect and marvel at the more than 750,000 Jewish young adults from around the world who have participated in Birthright’s programming.

Birthright Israel has become a rite of passage for thousands of young adults that helps dictate their personal life choices, professional decisions, involvement in the community, relationship with Israel and identity. Every eligible Jewish young adult can benefit from a Birthright Israel trip, regardless of background, country of origin, religion, sexual orientation or physical/mental disabilities. Often, a Birthright Israel trip is the first time a young person is able to meet an Israeli or hear Hebrew being spoken. In addition to tailored trips for participants around interests and needs, we developed Excel, the premier fellowship program for Jewish young professionals and future business leaders.

Today, Birthright Israel is the most successful Jewish educational program on earth, and furthermore, it is the most successful educational travel organization in the world. This success has not been the result of chance. The world has experienced tremendous change over the last 20 years and our organization has remained committed to evolving as well, from extending the age eligibility for our trips to constantly introducing new programming. We aim to continue shaping Jewish identity around the world on a massive scale and measuring that impact, especially for diaspora Jews who are most at-risk of losing ties to the community. As we begin this, our 20th Anniversary year, we are achieving and exceeding these goals.

Through our partnership with Brandeis University and Professor Len Saxe and his team – who have been researching Birthright since its inception – we have conducted longitudinal studies of the impact of Birthright Israel. There is no other Jewish program that has been researched in such depth and length. The findings from this year’s study were remarkable. Key findings include that Birthright Israel participants are 47% more likely to have a strong connection to Israel than non-participants, even 10-20 years after participating in Birthright, and that participants are 50% more likely to participate often in Jewish communal events than non-participants, even after that same duration. Our program reaches young Jewish people at a time when they are making crucial decisions that affect their lives and twenty years later, the research also found that our participants are more likely to choose to have a Jewish family. Essentially, Birthright Israel has proven to be one of the strongest personal catalysts for young people shaping their identity at a critical time in their lives.

Birthright Israel also has significant impact on the Israelis who participate. Thousands of Israelis who participate every year, mostly IDF soldiers, show increased pride in their service. For them Birthright is the best way to be exposed to all the various aspects of Judaism today.

In addition to the personal impact of Birthright Israel, the organization’s impact on the State of Israel has also evolved into something extraordinary. The Israeli government, along with the founders, initially invested in the project for ideological reasons. However, as Birthright grew and evolved, Israel began to reap incredible economic fruits. Today, Birthright has contributed billions to the Israeli economy and helped establish and strengthen countless international business relations that will span generations.

While Birthright Israel was founded to strengthen Jewish community ties all over the globe, the organization has also transcended religion and affected a number of other ethnic groups. The saying goes “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and over the last 20 years, Birthright Israel’s model has acted as a template for connecting a number of diaspora communities to their cultural homelands, inspiring organizations, including Birthright Armenia, Heritage Greece, ReConnect Hungary and CubaOne to name just a few.

Birthright Israel has grown and evolved into something most of us – even those who have been part of it since day one – could never have imagined. However, we must do more than measure the organization’s impact and rest on our laurels. It is imperative that we continue to evolve in order to meet the diverse needs of those who are eligible for our programming. We have ambitious goals for the future including reaching one million participants, new exciting programming and partnerships and a revamped educational module. We are proud to have thousands of individual and institutional donors around the globe that recognize the importance of a vibrant Jewish future. Supporting Birthright Israel is supporting the next generation of Jewish leaders who are the bridge between Israel and the diaspora – a commitment to the future of Jews, Jewish communities and Israel.

Gidi Mark is Birthright Israel CEO.