Taglit Birthright Pioneers an Important “Discovery” for Jewish Philanthropy

by Dr. Jonathan Mirvis

In Israel over the past few days there have been two news stories which seemingly are not connected.

Galei Tzahal, the IDF radio station, broadcast a report that Taglit had brought a number of non-Jewish participants to Israel who took advantage of the free vouchers offered.

A second story was the decision of Prime Minister Netanyahu to hold the Israel elections a year in advance of its due date. One of the commentators explained the PM’s motivation as being his desire to hold the elections prior to the USA Presidential elections. In Israel there are those who believe that President Obama in his second term (if he wins the election) may be far more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and that Netanyahu feels the need to have a strong government in place in anticipation of a possible Obama re-election.

In effect these two stories are connected. Strategically Israel cannot survive without the United States’s support in a hostile Middle East. With increasing pressure for the US to support the moderate Arab States who oppose Iran, it is the Jewish lobby in Washington which insures that Israel’s interest should not be compromised. The strength of the Jewish Lobby is directly related to the commitment of key elements of the American Jewish Community to Israel, a reality which is in jeopardy with the rising trends of assimilation. The threat of assimilation was one of the key motivating forces for the establishment of Taglit which this year intends to bring 50,000 young adults for its transformative Israel experience.

A major coup of Steinhardt and Bronfman was their ability to persuade the Israeli government to invest in Taglit even though Taglit’s mission is the strengthening of Diaspora Jewish identity. While there are advertisements on Israel radio which emphasis the success of Taglit as a vehicle for encouraging aliyah, aliyah is certainly not part of the core mission.

In our current reality in which Jewish education is in desperate need of major funding, the natural investor is the Israeli Government. Israel invests in foreign aid to ensure political support in multiple arenas and it self benefits from US foreign aid. If the Israeli Government were to invest a hundred millon dollars in North American Jewish education this is only a small portion of the Foreign Aid which it receives from the US Government, yet this investment would be its insurance policy that U.S Foreign Aid would continue in the future as well.

Taglit and more recently MASA have proven that a relatively small investment by the Israeli government has enabled the program to leverage other local partners and this paradigm should be enlarged to include other major components of Diaspora Jewish education such as Day School education and Jewish Camping.

In an age in which Jason Saul’s book The End Of Fundraising Raise More Money by Selling Your Impact has gained increasing accolades, we need new strategies to attract social investors who are seeking social benefits that will enhance their agenda. From this perspective the greatest potential investor is the Israeli government for whom a strong Jewish Diaspora is key for its survival.

Dr. Jonathan Mirvis is a lecturer in Social Entrepreneurship at the Melton Center for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University and the International Director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini School.