Birthright Foundation sees record number of donors in 2023, raising over $85 million, new CEO says 

Elias Saratovsky, who started his position on Sept. 1, says the organization pivoted after Oct. 7, will reflect Israel’s new realities in future trips

Elias Saratovsky had five weeks on the job as the new CEO of the Birthright Israel Foundation before the Oct. 7 massacres in southern Israel and the start of an ongoing war against Hamas, which have radically altered the field of philanthropy, Israel travel and Jewish communal life around the world.

Birthright initially halted its scheduled trips and introduced a new volunteering opportunity for alumni — and then for any Jewish young adult. In late December, it resumed its trips, albeit with drastically fewer participants than normal.

But while Birthright Israel has scaled back its activities because of the war, the Birthright Israel Foundation, which funds the trips, had a record year in terms of donors in 2023, raising more than $85 million, with hopes to continue seeing increased donations going forward, according to Saratovsky.

This week, eJewishPhilanthropy spoke with Saratovsky about his first few months in his position and how Birthright Israel has responded to the Oct. 7 attacks and ongoing war in Israel.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Judah Ari Gross: So you’re almost six months into this position. You started on Sept. 1, meaning you had about a month — which included the High Holy Days — before everything changed on Oct. 7. How have you been finding it?

Elias Saratovsky: So, first of all, it’s a huge honor to be in this role and to lead the Birthright Israel Foundation. The work that we’ve done over the past 24 years has really transformed a generation of Jews — 850,000 participants from 68 countries.

Ensuring that the Jewish community, particularly young people, are feeling a sense of connection and pride and sparking their Jewish identity is really important. I was on the first trip that went to Birthright in December 1999, so for me, personally, this is very meaningful. And I came into this job knowing that this was going to be a hugely important role. 

And then certainly in the morning of Oct. 7, through the devastation and heartache, I realized very quickly that our work will be more important than ever because we’re going to have another generation of Jews for whom it will be very important for us to make sure that they have a connection to Israel and a connection to the Jewish people worldwide. And that’s what Birthright provides. We’ve been the largest provider of Israel experiences, not only for American Jews, but worldwide Jewry. 

JAG: In the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, Birthright put its Israel trips on hold. But how has the foundation had to shift or pivot since the start of this war?

ES: I’ll get to the fundraising piece in a second. But I want to address what we did in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7 because I think it’s really important in terms of what we’re working on. We realized right away that we needed to engage our alumni base across the country, here in the U.S. and globally, and many of our alumni have been on social media telling Israel’s story. And we’ve continued to educate and inspire our alumni and provide them the resources so they can be the advocates for Israel at this critical time. 

And we also realized right away that while that was necessary, it wasn’t sufficient, and we ran a pilot of giving our alumni — and then all Jews between the ages of 18 and 40 — the opportunity to go to Israel to volunteer, to provide them an opportunity to assist in food rescue operations and also in logistical centers. And we were blown away at the response. We initially thought that we would have about 200 participants in the first two months, and it turns out we had 1,000 volunteers in Israel between the beginning of November and the end of December, and we plan to have an additional 2,000 by April. And it was really our ability to pivot very quickly and at scale, the ability to bring over 1,000 volunteers, and it speaks to the power that we have and the reach that we have with our alumni. 

And we also have participants on our 10-day trips on the ground right now — we have about 1,000 participants this winter — and then hopefully many, many thousands this summer. 

In terms of fundraising, we had a record year in 2023. We had more donors than we’ve ever had before. We raised over $85 million for our efforts. We continue to attract new donors at all levels through our direct marketing campaign, including new seven-figure donors that are inspired by our work and want to be part of our community.

JAG: How much of that record fundraising came from pre-Oct. 7 and how much was post-Oct. 7? 

ES: That money was raised throughout the year, but certainly after Oct. 7, we saw a number of people realize that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to advance the Jewish community and to ensure that our young people have the confidence and the pride to talk about Israel and to experience Israel, and that Birthright Israel is a huge part of that solution. So we’ve had a number of new donors that came after Oct. 7 and we continue to see that happen every single day.

JAG: Obviously, this comes as the Adelson Family has scaled back its financial support for Birthright Israel considerably in recent years, with the expectation that new donors would step in and fill that void. Have you succeeded on that side of things so far? Have the new donors covered the loss of the Adelsons?

ES: We continue to bring in new donors because two things have happened: The Adelsons’ support went from $40 million to $10 million, but also the cost of the trips went up by 30% after COVID-19. So we continue to both bring in new donors to fill that void, and also a large number of our current donors have increased their investment in our work, and we continue to invite more people to come in. 

I should mention the Adelsons, over their lifetime, gave half a billion dollars to this program and continue to be our largest donor. We’re very grateful for their support and very grateful to the tens of thousands of other donors that have stepped up in the last few years.

JAG: This is more of a question for the trip providers, less for the foundation, but I imagine this is something you would know: Is Birthright altering its trips going forward to account for the Oct. 7 attacks and how Israel as a country has changed? Of course, the trip included visits to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and to the Har Herzl military cemetery, but they were also meant to be fun and exciting. How will you factor the current mournful state of the country?

ES: I’ve been to Israel since Oct. 7 and I’m actually going again this week. It’s not an understatement to say that the country has totally changed, and our trips reflect that. 

There are a number of different things that we’re doing to reflect the current scenario. One, on every single trip there’s a volunteer component now. We want to make sure that our participants are part of that civic effort to help Israel. Two, every single participant is bearing witness. Not necessarily down south. All of our trips focus on strict safety protocols so we don’t get near the Gaza border, we don’t get near the Lebanese border, but they’re meeting with survivors of the Nova Music Festival and survivors from the kibbutzim and the towns that were impacted. We’re also meeting with family members of the hostages. That’s a very critical component of our trips, to make sure that the participants understand what’s happening with those family members and the centrality of the hostage families in Israel. And we’re also devoting more time to the geopolitical aspects of Israel right now, since that’s a critical component of what happened on Oct. 7. 

A lot of the other factors of the itinerary are staying the same, but there’s no doubt that the events of Oct. 7 and the aftermath are reflective in the itinerary. We’re also providing a lot more time for the participants to reflect on what they’re experiencing and ensuring that there’s time for conversations between the participants from the Diaspora and the Israeli participants to make sure that they both understand the shared experiences that they’re going through.

JAG: How has the dip in participation this winter affected things going forward? 

ES: We want to bring as many participants as possible to Israel this year. And in fact, our registration is off to a good start, obviously fewer than last year, but we already have over 6,000 participants that have applied, registered, paid their deposits, and we want to take as many people as possible, whether on our 10-day trip or through Onward, our more immersive internships. And obviously thousands of volunteers continue to apply, 90% of them are Birthright alumni. We think it’s important for young people to go to Israel, to experience Israel, to feed off the resilience that the Israeli people have right now. And we also think it’s important for Israelis to see Birthright participants from all over the world coming to Israel and experiencing Israel right now.

JAG: Do you know what specifically accounts for the dip in enrollment numbers? Is it primarily safety concerns or do people see Israel as a controversial place to visit so they want to avoid it?

ES: It’s largely safety concerns. We’ve done focus groups on this. We’ve taken participants to Israel during conflicts and wars, and we have a track record of providing a safe experience without compromising the experience and we continue to do so. We follow strict Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command guidelines. We monitor the trips on a constant basis. We have security guards on every single trip. But I understand why people are worried today about going to Israel. 

And at some point — God willing, soon — the war will be over. It’ll be quieter. And we fully anticipate that the demand will skyrocket in a similar way after COVID-19 ended. We went from taking just a few thousand participants in 2020 and 2021, and then over 30,000 participants in 2022 and close to 30,000 in 2023. So we know that the demand will come back in a large way. 

We also anticipate that there’ll be a large number of Jewish young adults who never thought about their Jewish identity but, as a result of antisemitism and discrimination on their college campuses or in the communities, will want to explore their Jewish identity. And Birthright is a natural place for them to experience Israel.

JAG: And on the more technical, logistical side of the trips, how has the decision of almost all airlines, save for El Al, to cut their flights to Israel affected things for Birthright? 

ES: We have the ability and the capacity to take as many participants as possible, certainly tens of thousands this summer. 

And we all pray that this war will come to a peaceful resolution with Israel meeting all of its objectives and that many, many more people, including tens of thousands of Birthright participants, will be able to get to Israel as soon as possible. 

One of the things that I constantly hear from participants is that they feel vulnerable and scared back home. And when they get to Israel — whether it’s to volunteer or on a Birthright trip – they automatically feel more connected with other Jews and they feel safer. And they come back feeling more resilient. And we want to provide that for tens of thousands of participants this year.

JAG: And in terms of hotels, so many rooms have been taken up by evacuees, has that been an issue at all?

ES: We’ve taken that all into account. We have best-in-class logistics people. And we certainly have the capacity to take people to Israel this summer.

JAG: Shifting back to the fundraising side, in terms of the new donors who you said have been coming in since Oct. 7, can you tell me a little bit about sort of who they are? Are they people who are generally involved in the Jewish community? Are they more outsiders? Parents of Birthright participants? 

ES: All of the above. We’re seeing a lot of people coming to Birthright Israel Foundation to invest in this work. 

This is a project that’s been in existence for almost 25 years — we have our 25th anniversary next year — and we want to be in existence for many more generations. So people are answering the call. And in order for us to send as many participants as possible, we need more [donors] to join us. And we’ve been actually very inspired by the new people who are coming on board.

JAG: At this point, how common is it for there to be former Birthright participants, especially from the earlier years, coming back and donating? 

ES: That’s a huge priority of ours. Certainly as an alum of this program myself, I believe that it’s important for my generation now to step up and ensure that the gift that we received is passed on. So we are seeing more people stepping up. We would like a lot more of it. It will be a huge focus of our efforts. And my hope is that five years from now, 10 years from now, as [my generation] continues to get older and have more earning power, that we will give back, provide this gift for tens of thousands of other participants.