By Gidi Mark
The Covid19 period has forced Jewish organizations worldwide to reassess and reimagine their mission and operational strategies. While Birthright Israel is no exception, it is nonetheless important to clarify the nature of such reassessments and situate them in an appropriate, chiefly positive, context.
Research has conclusively shown the tremendous impact of Israel educational tourism in general, let alone that of the Birthright Israel model. Among the many findings regarding Birthright Israel’s long-lasting impact, one can highlight that our participants are 41% more likely to have a Jewish spouse than non-participants and that even 10-15 years after their Taglit-Birthright Israel experience, they are more likely to participate in Jewish cultural events and celebrate Jewish holidays such as Passover or Rosh Hashanah. Also, 80% of our participants over the past two decades called their Birthright Israel trip a “life-changing experience”
A prudent analysis of the current reality suggests that it will take at least a good few months before Birthright Israel can resume its educational operations on the scale we have all been accustomed to witnessing in previous years. However, the Covid19 period also offers us a host of opportunities to think differently, as well as creatively – two foundations which are arguably vital to the healthy evolution of any institution, and not only at times of crisis. Now, as most of the conventional modes of operation in the Jewish community are temporarily inaccessible, we can forge innovative and creative paths to revitalize our collective desire for contact, identity, comradery, solidarity and mutual responsibility. The following are some essentials in Birthright Israel’s roadmap for this period, taking into account the substantial scale and global reach of our organization: 750,000 alumni from nearly 70 countries worldwide.
First is the unwavering belief that this, too, shall eventually pass. While recognizing the tremendous difficulties this period has introduced, we need to look beyond it with cautious yet firm optimism, as we strategize forward. Second, we aim to maintain our personnel to the best of our ability: we continuously invest in the professional development of our educational teams (in Israel and abroad), as they are the true secret behind Birthright Israel’s success, and need to be ready to welcome the hundreds of thousands of our future participants, when the time comes. Meanwhile, we employ their many talents to create and lead, and express their exceptional abilities through alternative engagement opportunities. One example is our “Machon BaSalon” initiative, where scores of tour educators join (virtually, of course) to share ideas, programs and best practices pertaining to our educational trips. Third, we strive to maintain our marketing channels to the best of our ability: we launched several online campaigns engaging our alumni and prospective participants, under such concepts as “we are in this together” and “we are waiting for you.” Fourth, we work to harness the relative accessibility of participants (both alumni and prospective) to either sustain existing relationships or forge new ones – such as our “Birthright Israel Connect” initiative. Fifth, we focus on harnessing the forced social isolation to reignite appreciation of, and reliance on Jewish communal life and overall Jewish peoplehood. This period truly allows us to highlight the value of community for the chief pillar of Jewish life it has always been. Sixth, we develop creative communication and tour platforms for a) global peer contact and b) cutting-edge virtual tours of Israel, which assist in upholding the centrality of educational tourism to Israel even when travel is forbidden. Seventh, we continue to harness the forced social isolation to reignite appreciation of family life and traditions, through such programs as creating one’s Family Tree, the bilingual, online family Passover Hagaddah etc.’ Eights, as we read in Leviticus “You shall rise up before the hoary head and honor the face of the elder,” Birthright Israel invests in this great Jewish value by lending assistance through our graduates to elderlies in need during this pressing period. One example is our “Door 2 Dor” initiative, wherein Israeli Birthright Israel Excel fellows initiated a cadre of thousands to assist elderly citizens across the country by providing essential food products and social comfort. Ninth, in light of the growing unemployment rates and a pressing financial uncertainty, Birthright Israel employs its global network to assist local businesses of our alumni abroad.
In conclusion, we do believe that this difficult time – one which none has wished to witness – also bears opportunities for proactive reimagination on behalf of the Jewish world. Paraphrasing the book of Judges, “out of the strong, sweetness shall come forth”: as the world will eventually find a cure to this epidemic, we trust that the demand for Birthright Israel’s educational journeys will dramatically rise. On top of nearly 50,000 participants we have each year, Birthright Israel anticipates the additional number of many thousands who have applied to our trips yet ended up not arriving due to the forced temporary postponement. Additionally, we believe that the currently strenuous economic situation will highlight the value of the gift which Birthright Israel has always been, alongside the understandable human desire to reconnect, socialize, travel and have new and exciting experiences. Time and again we are overwhelmed by the dedication and commitment of our funders worldwide. Like us, they believe that the participants that skipped this summer will come during the next, and that the Jewish people cannot afford to lose them.
The tunnel we are all crossing right now is filled with uncertainty, confusion, even dread; yet it also holds points of light which may serve us well beyond the boundaries of this epidemic. The ability to proactively seek and harness such opportunities can serve us greatly in the present, as well as the future.
Gidi Mark is the International CEO of Birthright Israel.