Birthright Israel

The impact the organization has had on Israeli tourism and Jews in the diaspora.

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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.

History

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.
birthright israel
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.

Structure

Birthright Israel itself does not run trips. Rather it serves as an umbrella organization that sets program standards and distributes funding to independent tour operators which it licenses as authorized providers of Birthright Israel tours. The providers (different from year to year) represent a variety of religious and political stripes, and often serve niche markets. Among the largest providers have been Hillel, the Jewish college student organization, and (until recently) Oranim, a for-profit company. All groups have their own bus, Israeli guide, driver, and staff members from the sponsoring organization.

Birthright targets Jews ages 18 to 26. The program’s standard itinerary includes tours of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and Mount Herzl military cemetery; Tel Aviv’s Independence Hall; Masada; and the Golan Heights. It also includes several discussion circles where participants are encouraged to voice feelings and opinions about being Jewish and being in Israel. Visitors have the opportunity to befriend Israelis their own age, through an encounter program (mifgash) that has young Israeli army officers join each bus as co-tourists.

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Shaul Kelner

Shaul Kelner is assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism (NYU Press, 2010).