Birthright Tel Aviv: A Simple Solution

telavivbirthright-450x290There was a big hullabaloo here on eJewish Philanthropy the past couple of weeks that began with an otherwise innocuous and well meaning article by my dear friend, educator, comedian and hummus enthusiast Benji Lovitt. “In Israel Programs: The Case for Tel Aviv“, Benji suggested that Israel educational trips, particularly Birthright Israel, do not spend enough time in Tel Aviv. He opines that Tel Aviv, as the embodiment of Israel’s modern, forward looking spirit, its cultural, high tech and secular capital, is better suited to touch the hearts and minds of trip participants than would be reflected in the time spent there on most trip itineraries. The article touched a nerve – it received over 1000 Facebook likes, was shared 2,705 times (as of this writing) and elicited a slew of comments.

It also inspired a response by Dr. Zohar Raviv, the International Vice President of Education at Taglit-Birthright Israel. “In Israel Programs: The Case for Sound Educational Critique“, Dr. Raviv responded by citing statistics as follows:

… during the Summer 2013 season, 97 percent of our tour groups spent at least one night in Tel Aviv and about half that amount had a free evening in the city. In our recent concluded 2014 Winter program, the number was again about 90 percent spent the night in Tel-Aviv area with a similar number even having the free time to explore the city on their own. Without fail, 100 percent of Taglit-Birthright Israel groups, which average approximately 42,000 participants each year, spend a meaningful day in Tel Aviv, regardless of where their overnight accommodation may be.

Dr. Raviv also noted the existence of specialized niche trips that by their very nature are more focused on Tel Aviv ie “high-tech, entrepreneurship, business-management, bloggers, artists etc.” Dr. Raviv admits the difficulty in presenting the modern state of Israel within its full historical context, and reasserts Birthright Israel’s commitment to continuously improving its curriculum.

This all in turn inspired yet another article, this time penned by Dan Brown, the editor of eJP, where he asks “are those professionals crafting programs keeping up with the times? Are they absorbing, and reacting, to the simple fact that today’s young adults are different than yesterday’s?” Dan claims that said professionals are in fact failing miserably. And Dan’s response was measured, to say the least, compared to some of the barbs wielded by the commenters. Said comments could be boiled down to “Yeah! More Tel Aviv. Birthright sucks at educating its participants. My nephew went on a Birthright trip and only spent an afternoon in Tel Aviv!” etc. etc. etc.

Well, what can I say? I’m not here to bash anyone. The reality is that there is only so much you can do on a free 10-day trip. If you spend more time in one place, you’ll have to spend less time in another. That’s just the nature of the beast. There would definitely be a great value in spending more time in Tel Aviv, just as there would in spending more time in Haifa, or Be’er Sheva or even having a meal at my Aunt Chana’s table in Moshav Tirosh. Priorities are dictated by all sorts of factors beyond the control of trip providers and Birthright Israel, factors such as cost, season, room availability etc. For instance, in the case of Tel Aviv, one can’t ignore the fact that hotel room rates have gone up significantly over the years.

In any case, what has eluded all the armchair pundits in all this balagan, is that the answer to the serious issues raised is right there under our collective noses. Well, maybe your collective noses – certainly not mine. What I am proposing is a simple and elegant solution that can and will address most of the issues raised in the eJP articles. Are you ready?

As you may or may not know, I’ve been involved with Birthright Israel and various trip providers for years. I’ve helped build Web sites, designed logos, spoken to Birthright trips, led a whole bunch as a madrich and given my home’s close proximity to the Machaneh Yehudah, run into more trip participants than I can count. In all my interactions, the most notable thing that I have found was in fact specifically cited in Dr. Raviv’s post. This is the statistic that a mere 30% of Birthright Israel trip participants extend the length of their trips. This always kind of shocked me because, I mean you’ve already shlepped all the way to Israel – why not spend a bit more time here and explore the country, or say a specific city, a bit more on your own? Well, what if we incentivized trip participants to stay a little longer? What if we empowered these wily Millenials and allowed them to add to their trip an itinerary all their own? Ask yourselves, how many more trip participants would extend their stay in Israel by 4-5 days or more if they were offered a $180 gift in order to do so? Would the 30% increase by 10%? 20%? More even?

Birthright Israel has recently expanded its eligibility requirements, now allowing people who have been to Israel on a high school trip to participate. This development, reportedly done at the behest of the Israeli government, will further expand the pool of eligible participants. Of course the Israeli government wants this to happen, especially in light of the reported $850 million that Birthright Israel has directly injected into the Israeli economy. Now imagine how much higher that amount would be if Birthright managed to double the number of people extending their trips? Many would in all likelihood spend far more than the $180 allotted to them, thus further helping the Israeli economy, and they could use their extra time any way they like – strolling on Dizengoff, enjoying a cappuccino on Rothschild, sunning their buns on the beach or whatever. Birthright Israel could in turn provide them with a guidebook outlining less visited places of interest in Israel (like Dodah Chana’s house in Moshav Tirosh) and fun and edifying activities. It’s a win/win situation that builds upon and enhances the Birthright educational experience and plays to trip participants’ desire for independence and empowerment. Because, you know, Millenials. Duh.

Of course not everyone would be able to take advantage of this option, but just knowing that it’s available and that they’d have a guidebook to help them (and maybe even a hotline they could call for travel assistance and advice) could dramatically increase the number of participants extending their trips and gaining valuable insight into Israel and their Jewish identities. It shouldn’t be too difficult to raise the money involved and it will in all likelihood spur a new cottage industry of trip providers and Israeli educational organizations offering affordable extension programs for their trip participants (spend three days on an eco-farm! One week high tech internships! Tel Aviv Pub Crawl! Authentic Shabbat Experience in Jerusalem! The possibilities are endless). And why $180? Ten times Chai (life=18 in Hebrew)! Why 10? Ten Commandments! Yeah Jewlicious is getting all educational in your grille tonight!

Now the ball’s in your court Birthright Israel. No need to send me a check Gidi. Just next time I shlepp to one of your Mega Events, please ask your staff to be a little nicer. Know what I mean?

David Abitbol is the founder of Jewilicious.com (where this is cross-posted).