Gifts, Investments, and Transactions: Birthright Israel and the Demand for ROI

ROIby Maya Rabinowitz

When you give somebody a gift, do you expect something in return? If you expect simply gratitude, what do you assume that gratitude looks like? If Shabbat is a gift from God to the Jewish people (B. Shab 10b), is it purely to benefit the people or do the laws of Shabbat observance exist to benefit God?

These are just some of the questions some colleagues and I contemplated at a recent gathering of professionals working in the field of young adult engagement. What started as text study about Shabbat as a gift transitioned into a conversation about Taglit-Birthright Israel. While in English and in North America we call the program Birthright Israel (versus Taglit, the Hebrew word for “discovery,” as it is known throughout the rest of the world), the tagline on all material is “This trip is a gift from Taglit-Birthright Israel.” Many Trip Organizers and professionals who work on the experience are quick to express in orientations and marketing materials that this gift comes with no strings attached.

And now, after 14 years of the gift and 400,000th participants, we as Jewish professionals, we as donors, and we as a community must ask the hard questions: Who are the individuals or organizations giving the gift, and do they agree with each other? Are the givers expecting something in return from those who receive the gift? If so, then is this experience truly a gift? Should this be a gift?

Last year, Rabbi Aaron Meyer questioned the gift in his op-ed “Why Birthright Israel, at $1,000,000,000, is Hafuch.” He asked “Is feeling positive about being Jewish – without translating those feelings into action – worth a billion dollar expenditure of Jewish communal resources?” It is not an uncommon question, as many professionals continue to wring their hands over “getting Birthright alumni to show up” or “getting the lists,” and as local donors and partners ask to see numbers on post-trip engagement in terms of individuals “showing up” to institutional programming.

It is crucial for our community to discuss (and argue) over the answer to Rabbi Meyer’s question. However, it is also critical to note that Taglit-Birthright Israel is fulfilling its mission: to give a free trip to Israel to as many young Jews as possible. Their mission does not include what happens after. They are truly the gift-giver with no expectations. Hopes, yes; but no expectations. When I give somebody a wedding gift, I hope that they send me a thank-you note, that they use the gift and appreciate it, that, maybe, they will give me a wedding gift in return when the time comes. But is it right for me to expect that? I chose to give the gift – what somebody does with the gift is a personal choice. (Which is why I won’t give my friend a wedding gift that I think is useless, even if they put it on their registry. Let somebody else buy you a $300 crystal ring holder.)

We have already spent money on the gift, so questioning the validity of the spending is moot. For me, the real question is: Can or should we expect something in return from Birthright Israel participants given the language we currently use? Is it fair to expect action in return for giving somebody a gift, particularly if they didn’t ask for the gift to begin with? Can we find joy and meaning in giving the gift and receiving nothing tangible or measurable in return?

While I will be the first to admit that moving towards measurable outcomes versus “good feelings” has been huge for our community and our programming, I admit that I still think there is value in doing something nice and feeling good about it. I think we can find joy and meaning in giving the gift of Birthright Israel, particularly because, compared to other immersive Jewish experiences, it’s the most bang for our buck. Jewish camping, of which I’m a huge fan, costs exponentially more – and still does not have a 100% ROI. It is not appropriate to expect a return on an investment that we are blatantly calling a gift and a right.

Alternatively, maybe Taglit-Birthright Israel is not a gift at all, and therefore we should expect something in return. From what I have heard and read throughout my field and my community, it seems our feelings about what happens after the program do not correspond with the language we use. Communal professionals and organizations use the term “investment,” which inherently expects – or demands – a return. The Israeli government, a key funder, is making the investment and seeing returns in the program’s economic stimulation. Studies out of the Cohen Center at Brandeis show stable returns in personal Jewish life and attitudes. But are we seeing the returns we want or expect in communal life?

If we, as a Diaspora community, are truly expecting ROI, I propose we stop promoting Birthright Israel as gift or a right, and instead speak openly about it as an investment or as an elite program that comes with obligations. Though not everyone accepted will ultimately fulfill their obligations, at least we will be transparent in our efforts and our language. Participants will not be surprised when a Federation professional reaches out to them to invite them to coffee or an event. They will not be surprised when they receive emails of upcoming Jewish opportunities in their city. More importantly, participants may start being more honest and flexible when presented with the opportunity to join the program. Currently, spaces on trips are being turned down because the offer isn’t the exact 100% match that a participant desires in terms of date, airport, airline, and friend requests. If Taglit were to become a competitive program (and perhaps even a resume booster), we may see more sophisticated and more grateful participants.

This is not to say that our community shouldn’t be giving gifts to all Jews, regardless of their qualifications. Every young Jew should be presented with an accessible opportunity, especially if their parents’ were unable or unwilling to give that to them in adolescence. But perhaps this new type of gift should be more cost effective than a trip to Israel.

If we become more transparent, we may not reach the numbers Taglit currently is reaching, but perhaps we will reach those individuals who will turn their pride into the action our community seemingly is seeking. We may even reach the participants who will ultimately confidently choose and do Jewish on their own, without us needing to constantly hold their hands for fear that they may wander away.

Maya Rabinowitz is a Jewish communal professional working to expand opportunities for her Millennial contemporaries.