A recent spate of articles highlights the difficulties Birthright is having recruiting new students. There is no question that Birthright is the most successful Jewish communal initiative of the past generation. Birthright has successfully brought tens of thousands of Jewish students – who likely would never have visited Israel – to the Holy Land. It is also not surprising that it’s getting harder for Birthright to recruit new participants. After all, if you offer free trips to young people between the age of 19-26 for ten years, at a certain point you will have already “picked all of the low hanging fruit”. At this point, anyone who fits the criteria and really wanted to take advantage of this generous opportunity has already done so. As such, every year you only have the cohort of new 19 years olds to add to your recruitment pool.
However, I was deeply struck by one statistic – the claim that 60% of the potential Birthright participants appear uninterested in taking part in this program. If that number is correct, then for all its success, Birthright is leaving behind the bulk of the potential future Jewish community. This brings me to my next controversial point … It is possible that despite all its success, Birthright is the right program at the wrong time.
In the May 1988 issue of Midstream Magazine I wrote an article titled: “Revitalizing Zionism”. In the article I posited that: “A specific program could be developed to grant certificates to all Jewish youths reaching Bar/Bat Mitzvah entitling them to a free trip to Israel later on. In order to qualify for the trip a number of mandatory meetings could be held during the period before the trip to prepare them. That trip could be provided for 16 year olds guaranteeing all American Jewish youth have a common experience. This would also encourage Israel study programs and generate interest in the years leading up to the trip. The trip to Israel could be designed to integrate American youth with Israelis of similar age to create life-long bonds.”
With the perspective of 26 years I realize there are many challenges to implementing the plan I presented back then. Though, maybe, just maybe the problem with Birthright is that it is a last ditch “Hail Mary” effort, when for many of the kids it is already too late – and maybe after a decade of success, it’s time to change gears and try something a little different.