Birthright Israel was founded in 1999 to send young Jews on a fully paid ten-day trip to Israel so they can explore Judaism and understand their personal connections to the Jewish homeland. It was the brainchild of philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, who put up $8 million apiece and recruited 15 other partners to contribute $5 million each to get things started. Today, the program has a broad base of 25,000 individual donors who make it possible for about 51,000 souls to travel to the Jewish homeland each year. (Sheldon and Miriam Adelson have been the single biggest donors, giving $250 million to the organization since 2007.)
To date, Birthright has brought to Israel over 400,000 young Jews from more than 66 countries, most of them for the first time. The organization is thus strengthening Jewish faith and identity. In a 2012 study of long-term effects, Brandeis University researchers found that 90 percent of Birthright participants reported feeling “closer to Israel,” and trip-goers were somewhat more likely to marry someone Jewish and to place importance on raising a family in Judaism.
Steinhardt warns that Birthright is just a starting point, not a panacea for lost religious identity. He cautions that “the ten days of Birthright Israel cannot fully offset the appallingly poor Jewish education most of its participants were subjected to.” Nonetheless, the philanthropic footprint of the program is impressive: A 2013 Pew Research study found that 44 percent of American Jews under 30 have now visited Israel, and about half of them did so courtesy of Birthright.
- About the trips, birthrightisrael.com/visitingisrael/Pages/About-the-Trip.aspx
- Philanthropy magazine reporting, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/nonprofit_spotlight