Building a Gamechanger

photo courtesy Taglit-Birthright Israel

By Charles R Bronfman & Michael Steinhardt

When we began the planning for Birthright Israel in 1998, we had two dominant thoughts. How could we avoid the noble mistakes made in past Israel experience programs, limiting their impact to fairly paltry numbers? How could we build a movement that assured growth and scale so that one day, it could achieve its primary objective of bringing every eligible young adult on their first living and learning trip to Israel?

We needed a tight-loose-tight organization; one that could weather the inevitable challenges and be resilient in recovery, always locking into this mission and vision. Whether the second intifada, or a Government cut of 90% in one year, or active opposition to the very concept of Birthright on some campuses, our talented staff and governance structure delivered on our promises. We built the most dynamic educational system with consistent results that have had to adapt to the personality of three emerging generations: Generation X, the Millennials, and Generation Z.

We are often asked what is the “secret sauce?” While we would attribute a great deal of our success to the amazing tour educators, the presence of Israeli peers on every bus, the power of an autonomous experience with forty peers, the late night conversations about life, death, morality and all things Jewish, at least some of the credit belongs to the five core principles we established before Bus 1; principles in which the integrity of the program outrun any short term trends. It is ironic that some quarters are now criticizing the very essence of the program.

  1. A ten day living and learning program shall be a gift from one generation to the next. Initial age of eligibility shall be 18-26.
  2. Its purpose shall be to inculcate participants with increased Jewish identity, love of Israel and love of the Jewish people.
  3. Selection to the program shall be market driven among nonprofit and for profit educational providers who meet clear and unambiguous logistical and educational standards set by the program.
  4. Performance evaluation shall be an integral portion of each year’s operating budget.
  5. Program management shall be operated by a small, single purpose, entrepreneurial organization.

This was a gamechanger in Jewish life. The monopoly or oligopoly held by several organizations, regardless of their performance, was over. This looked like, smelled like and walked like a business franchise model. Why wouldn’t it? We were both more experienced in the worlds of business than in failing models of Jewish engagement. We were and we are overwhelmed by the response with over 600,000 young adults fully engaging in their birthright. Among the moments we love are talking to or reading emails from participants is their sense of appreciation for being treated like adults, often surprised that there were no expectations thrust upon them other than spending ten days in a pluralistic model of Jewish life.

Back to Core Rule 3: Well over 90% of participants use word of mouth to determine whether they wish to go on a trip and/or which trip organizer best meets their needs. This is our embodiment of the freedom of the marketplace. Many trip organizers have learned how to market more effectively by increasing “niche” trips: those that attract extreme athletes, culinary afficianados, and those interested in the arts or government, etc. It is also worth noting that none of those core principles deal with post trip engagement. From Day 1, many advocated for Birthright to continue its magic in the states and provinces of North America. We chose selective programs such as Birthright Excel to match extraordinary young adults with amazing Israeli businesses and partner with brilliant follow up opportunities such as Moishe House, Hillel and One Table, along with a myriad of local pluralistic programs that offer the next steps on one’s Jewish journey.

Let us close with a personal word. We are both secular Jews. As we approach the chai (18th) year, we never saw Birthright Israel as a religious trip, though many alumni have changed their ritual practices. We never saw it as a military adventure, though many alumni volunteered for the Israel Defense Forces. We never saw it as a vehicle for Aliyah, though thousands of alumni now consider Israel their home. We never saw it as a vehicle for Jewish professional employment, though 18% of the current Jewish community workforce are Birthright Israel alum. We continue to be engaged in every aspect of Birthright because as philanthropic investors, this is the best it gets. To have influenced the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Jews to have greater engagement with Jewish life, however they define it is the greatest return on investment.

Charles R. Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt are co-founders of Birthright Israel.