Netanyahu Challenges Federations on Birthright

“Yossi Beilin had an idea many years ago. He had an idea that we should bring young Jews from around the world – many young Jews to Israel. It’s not so simple because, you see, somebody has to pay for it. And then, this crazy idea that Yossi Beilin had, met up with crazy Jews, good Jews from the United States who had the same crazy idea.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu addressing the Mega Event

A Birthright participant from Brazil at 2011 Mega Event; photo courtesy Erez Ozir/Birthright Israel

Last Thursday night during the 2011 Winter Mega Event, Taglit Birthright Israel launched its second decade.

By the numbers, they’ve reached 300,000 young adults from 55 countries: 250,000 participants from around the world and an additional 50,000 members of the IDF who have joined with their peers. Birthright has further pumped over 1 billion NIS into Israel’s economy.

Mega, as usual, played to a packed Jerusalem Convention Center, electric with the sounds of thousands of participants often drowning out the musical entertainment. While those from the U.S. clearly dominated the audience, those from Argentina and Brazil displayed the most visible energy.

The Prime Minister was in attendance and so were some of Birthright’s visionary founding philanthropists, including Lynn Schusterman and Judy and Michael Steinhardt. And while Netanyahu was clearly welcomed, the mostly college-age students sat in rapt attention, taking in every word while both Schusterman and [Michael] Steinhardt spoke.

The big news of the night was the public acknowledgment by Netanyahu of a new commitment by the Government (GoI) to “more than double its investment in Birthright over the next few years [and] invest close to 100 million dollars.”

What drove the announcement was a written commitment by the Ministry of Finance to provide Taglit with $23m. this year and $32m. in 2012, up from 2010’s $15m.

This past year, Birthright brought 30,000 young adults to Israel. The budget – $76m. For 2011, the plan is to bring 35,000 with the ultimate goal of bringing 50,000 per year to Israel. All it takes is money.

The original formula for funding Birthright was 1/3 each from philanthropists, the Government, and the Jewish communal world (in the U.S. this means the Federation system). The philanthropists are clearly doing their part, currently footing 50% of the bill. After years of ups and downs, the Government has now stepped up to the plate. The Prime Minister has made it clear he expects more from the Federation system.

As far as Birthright, the Jewish Federations have been a “Jonny-come-lately;” in many cases, reluctant contributors. While the numbers are not in for 2010, it appears that Birthright receives under 1% of the Jewish Federations expenditure. This, for the program that, more than any other, will set the pace for the future U.S. Jewish community. This for the program that can already substantiate greater communal awareness and in-marriage among their alumni. This for the program that, other than Jewish summer camp and day school, is likely the most important engagement builder for our future.

As the Prime Minister indicated, [Taglit Birthright-Israel] “can dramatically help us strengthen Jewish identity and strengthening Jewish identity is critical for our common future.”

Can the community internalize, and then act on, this challenge? Only time will tell.