Since 1999, Taglit-Birthright Israel has brought over a quarter-million Jewish young adults from around the world to Israel for a free ten-day tour and education program. The half-billion dollar initiative is sponsored by the Israeli government along with diaspora Jewish philanthropic foundations, federations, and agencies. Motivated by North American Jewish concerns about assimilation, the program is intended to strengthen diaspora Jewish identity and attachments to Israel.
The use of tourism as a technique of Jewish education and as a means of fostering Jewish connections to the land of Israel dates to the early 20th century, when the Zionist movement began using hiking (tiyul) as a way of introducing Jewish immigrants to their homeland. Soon after Israel gained independence, diaspora Jewish youth movements and the Jewish Agency began drawing on the traditions and infrastructures of tiyul to create educational tours of the country for Jewish adolescents and young adults from around the world.
From the 1960s onward, a stream of evaluation research found that participation in these “Israel experience programs” tended to correlate with stronger Jewish commitments following the trips. Recognition of the power of the trips as a form of experiential Jewish education grew.
By the latter half of the 1980s, a coordinated effort to develop the programs and to make them a North American Jewish funding priority was being spearheaded by the CRB Foundation, a Canadian philanthropy founded by Seagram’s heir, Charles R. Bronfman. At first, the CRB effort focused on marketing and strengthening existing Israel experience programs . These investments succeeded in raising the profile of Israel trips on the Jewish philanthropic scene, but produced no large-scale increase in program participation rates.
In the late 1990s, CRB partnered with another foundation, Michael Steinhardt’s Jewish Life Network (JLN) to reintroduce an idea that had been floated at the beginning of the decade by Israel’s then-Deputy Foreign Minister, Yossi Beilin: Every diaspora Jewish young adult should be presented with the gift of a free trip to Israel. CRB and JLN put up their own funds to realize the idea, gained commitments from other philanthropic foundations, and then proceeded to convince a reluctant Israeli government and an ambivalent Jewish federation system to join as partners in the venture.